The following two-part interview, first with the author and then with the illustrator of Biota (Apothecary Archive, 2022), was conducted by Urn Yoda inside a fully restored Poké Ball
Dan & Joel: First, we would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and the Dharawal people, the Traditional Custodians of the lands upon which Biota was both written and drawn. And we would also like to pay our respects to their Elders past and present. Furthermore, we will both be voting yes in the upcoming referendum for an Indigenous voice to parliament.
Interview With the Poet, Martian Cumulonym (aka Joel Ephraims)
Urn Yoda: Biota, a book with a ‘double-theme’ – this would be ‘biota’ and the ancestor shrines?
Martian Cumulonym: Yes, haha. Though now that I think about it I don’t think ‘double-theme’ is accurate to my intentions. From the start I envisioned a book with a main theme, that of ‘biota,’ a specialised term from the natural sciences that means, as stated in the book, ‘the organisms that occupy a place, habitat or time together.’ This is meant to be, and is metonymically presented in the book as, a self-reflexive metaphor for both my poetry specifically and language generally – that is, language and poetry as a living system in relation to other world systems. I had three main loose-ish influences here: the title of what is considered to be John Ashbery’s first book of poetry, Some Trees; Jack Spicer’s concept of a Martian poetry, a poetry transmitted through mysterious radio broadcasts to the poet from unknowable Martians (I like how ‘biota’ is about everyday biology but sounds perfectly alien); and then I like how the term extends, complicates and abstracts another natural sciences phrase that continues to be emblematic of Australian poetry, ‘flora and fauna.’
So, the main theme of ‘biota’ you could say is the first sphere of the book. The second, concentric, focuses that theme into my everyday life, bridged between Vietnam and Australia from 2017 until 2021. Encompassing my life as an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City before Covid-19 and then my return to Australia at the start of 2020 and my life through the global pandemic experienced as a PhD student in Sydney. Through the lens of a second-generation Sri Lankan migrant, the continuing wavering othered-ness of that experience, and then seeing one alien country reflected in the other, Australia from the distance and prism of Vietnam, and then Vietnam from the distance and prism of Australia, one-inside-the-other within a 21st century hyper-capitalist, hyper-globalised, hyper-speed context. Anyway, so that’s the main thematic situation. Rather than being a second theme, the shrine poems and their accompanying illustrations are a complementary formal dynamic (what you might call also a light form of conceptual writing) that both refracts and focalises a two-way cultural situation and comparison.
They began as tiny poems influenced by Les Murray’s Poems the Size of Photographs (2002). (Fun fact: the one time I met Les Murray he stole my pen. That is, refused to give it back). He has a shrine poem in there, the idea and form of which I essentially lifted. Following Murray, my shrine poems are slight poems which, at their base form revolve around a single whimsy, a single blade of wit, a single idiom or idiomatic fragment or a single profundity – offered up to the reader as a piece of sustenance or nourishment, a trail of incense momentary as a skimmed newspaper cartoon – standing in relation to the full-length poems of the book as excited and critical conversation between a cinema audience before and after and sometimes during the movie; or as a light smattering of extra-terrestrial clouds over an extra-terrestrial landscape. From a formal perspective I like that juxtaposition of being inside and outside, substantial or insubstantial, conversational or densely literary etc. etc. At heart we are creatures of dichotomy.
Another influence on them is the idea, inspired by John Ashbery’s description of his own poetry in relation to the Victorian poet John Clare, of poetry being a pastoral walk through a landscape, only the landscape is a landscape of ideas. At some point my brother Tayne, who also lived in Vietnam at the time, along with me and Daniel, talked about his idea of creating ancestor shrine models containing, rather than the sacred statues and icons of traditional Buddhism (and there are many different strands of Buddhism in Vietnam), Marvel and DC superhero action figurines. I’m sure he got this idea both from the popularity of these Western superhero movies in Vietnam as well as from our writer-idol Donald Barthelme, whose novel Snow White (1967) appropriates the Disney movie to make an exploration and Joycean critique of American consumer culture and its mythologies. Seeing Coke-a-Cola and Sprite can pyramids within many of the ancestor shrines in Vietnam, along with Tayne’s idea, made me reflect on how these shrines could be used to represent a space of cultural influence and transition and how they might be used as a literary metaphor for consumer worship and the sustenance and nourishment we take from consumer goods. That they would also be a useful space for representing a two-way relationship between the culture industries of East and West, of Australia and Vietnam, proliferating industries in which consumerism has dimensions of mythology would also become central to my representation.
Going back to Ashbery and Clare, I was captivated by the prospect of recreating the physical experience of how ancestor shrines in Vietnam pop up unexpectantly, as wonderful surprises, in restaurants, in gardens, in roofs, everywhere, with their dusky incense and flashing green incandescent Buddhas like sacred dioramas. And then interrupting the poems as is the custom of enthusiastic Vietnamese cinema goers in relation to movies. And then, also, the religious level of there being two simultaneous worlds, one big, one small, the world of the humans and the world of the spirits, both ever physically present.
Urn Yoda: How did you write Biota into a postcolonial context?
Martian Cumulonym: Let’s start with the human world and then move to the spirit world. My approach with all the poems in Biota was to stick with my experiential perspective as an Australian expat teaching English and living in Ho Chi Minh City, which I did for only three years (and which, I note, as a stipend-less PhD student am again now). As a Western-foreigner with developed-world degrees I was in a privileged position. One that, being paid Australian-comparable wages in US-dollars in a low cost-of-living country in-itself had colonial overtones. In Biota I tried to be self-reflexive and self-critical to that. But an over-insistence of that position would also be colonially rife. Vietnam is an accelerating economy in a globalised world. It doesn’t need my overtures. So, firstly, I made sure to stick to my compromised, outside perspective. My other approach, involved with that, was to ensure that I kept a representative distance from Vietnamese culture and traditions while ensuring that I had researched enough to represent them accurately. This is especially the case with the ancestor shrine poems, which I presented at the general, blurred level of ‘Buddhism’ without focusing on any specific religion in Vietnam. In regards to using religion for literary purposes, I’d again emphasise that I was doing so not for surface aesthetics but to represent a new historical global and Neoliberal situation in Vietnam. My main influences on literary explorations of religion were Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Andy Warhol’s Catholic iconography art, and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. Religion has always has a special pull for me. My conversion and subsequent apostacy from Christianity remains perhaps the most significant event of my life. One which, at its core was purely fictional but which traumatically upheaved both my life and the world around me (see my poem ‘Apostate’s Elegy’ in this book.) All of which is nothing to the past, present and future suffering of historical colonialism – shadows of which have touched and shaped my life too.
Since writing Biota, I’ve had some time to reflect on how I might have approached the colonial situation better. Firstly, I would have liked to give more explanation at the front of the book as to my goals and intentions. Notably, I didn’t clearly present what is the main positionality of my ancestor shrine representation: that of a two-way relationship between Eastern and Western, Vietnamese and Australian culture. Secondly, I would have liked to have conducted more in-depth research into ancestor shrines in Vietnam and then presented key sources, again at a representational distance, at the end of the book. Thirdly, after delving more into Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, I would prefer to have embodied my treatment in a more fictional mode, abstracting from the actual religion and thereby allowing me to explore it in more detail at a more sensitive, abstracted remove – and to delve deeper into its profound and huge human truths.
Everything I have represented of Vietnam in Biota is only at a surface level. I can speak very little Vietnamese. But, surface holds depth. And, as conceptual writing shows us, negative positions can be generative. My in-translation and non-verbal perspective on Vietnam must bring forward its own representational truths into relief, benefiting from outsider, hybrid and distanced, uncomprehending perspectives. I’d also like to note how Vietnam has morphed the colonial cultures which have repressed it into its own: its architecture, café culture, cinema, to name but a few. McDonald’s umbrellas at the local Vietnamese café. Brilliant, provocative.
Our publisher, Gareth Sion Jenkins, under his enigmatic press, Apothecary Archive, has kindly given us the opportunity to revisit Biota. As a taste of what is to come, here is an alternate prologue for the book that I look to include in a new version (we are considering more than one) and which addresses and realises some of the ideas I have referred to above. Emphasising a two-way cultural relationship. Employing a more fictional mode, in this case amalgamating the mirroring traditions of ancestor shrines and their ancestor worship with tomb stones in Australia and how we also worship our ancestors and loved one’s by the placement of physical things in sacred spaces. A more specific but abstracted research-based approach. Here ‘children on their birthdays’ loosely echoes the Vietnamese folklore tradition of the ‘Hungry Ghosts Festival’ when ‘according to Vietnamese folklore, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the gates of Hell will open to allow ghosts and spirits to roam the earth’ and where ‘in some regions, children are allowed to grab the [offering] food for themselves’ (https://www.sbs.com.au/language/vietnamese/en/article/explainer-taboos-and-rituals-of-the-hungry-ghosts-festival/jszzsx40z; https://saigoneer.com/saigon-culture/19162-ghosts-and-other-myths-how-vietnam-celebrates-the-7th-lunar-month). Furthermore, my fictionalised mythology relates full-circle to the title poem of Biota, in which enlightenment ideals (globally) are metaphorically embodied as thousands-of-years-old children.
The poems are houses.
The tiny poems are tomb shrines.
Tomb shrines are for the sustenance of ancestor spirits,
called back from the netherworld by singing of children on their birthdays,
whether of family blood (those shrines placed inside:
in foyers, in restaurants, in TV rooms) or of strangers’ blood,
(those shrines placed outside: in tile roofs, in forests, on highway side),
giving sustenance through offerings of food, loved objects, flowers
or sacred icons lest the roaming spirits suffer a final implosion
and become auto-cannibal ghosts,
those lost spirits that alternatively inhabit deep trees and the thick sky
and leave their implosion food and implosion goods
amongst the food and latest things of the living.
The world of the dead
smaller than the world of the living.
The material world
holding gravity beyond even the grave.
Urn Yoda: More tell me about your neo surreal style?
Martian Cumulonym: I believe that John Ashbery coined the term as an update of the capital letter ‘S’ French Surrealists who emphasised writing from the unconscious but who were also homophobic. A simpler way of stating it is just to say a lower case surrealism, one removed from the historical movement, which shares its drive to represent the working of the unconscious mind and the profound input of the unconscious mind into society and human affairs through automatic, abstract modes of writing but which also brings the conscious mind back in, so that the representation is fuller, the unconscious in tandem with the conscious – ie. lived experience. I don’t want to toot my own horn here too much or stifle my poetry with didacticism (didacticism is another trend in Australian poetry that I am striving to break away from, the idea that in an urgent political environment poetry must be self-explanatory, conventionally rhetorical, essayistic etc. – sometimes to the point of not really being poetry at all) but I will offer a few thoughts on my own style, which falls under the umbrella of what Michael Farrell has termed the ‘Ashbery mode.’ Following the later poetry of Ashbery, which became much more self-reflexively political, my style uses a mode of metonymic distance. I don’t say it is a pirate ship. I offer you a skull pondering a desert upon which the shadow of a passing plane makes a cross-shape, upon which lie the fossilised remains of ancient sea creatures, upon which a lumbering wheeled vehicle crawls, the silhouettes of gauntleted arms visible in its eerie, opalescent windows.
What Ashbery does is present background worlds as foreground. Strategies of inversion and subversion of surfaces and the conspicuous or inconspicuous depths they are made up of. For example, take the surface propaganda and obfuscation of discourse in Australian democracy and fragment it so that its duplicitous and contradictory edges come into relief. And then, separately, as an ironic and parodic gesture, literalise obfuscation as a total way of looking at and speaking about the world. People say that Ashbery’s poetry is too complex, that his images and lines are often too obscure. I see it in an opposite way. His lines simplify complex relational situations in society by presenting them in condensed fragments of inter and intra-relation at the level of language. They clarify through sharp-focus societal situations that are otherwise diffuse and smoky. And make plain the contours of puppet master multiplicity that loom in the shadows all around us, human or otherwise. The purpose isn’t to befuddle but to re-fuddle. Anyway, that’s how I read Ashbery and it’s what I seek to do with my poetry. A kind of Rubik’s cube choreography. The poem as a puzzle. Not in an absolute way, where you have a set solution the reader is challenged to solve, but in the sense that the world is made up of puzzles, mostly unsolvable, and that language itself, following Wittgenstein, is made up of complex language games. So, what we do is make puzzle mirrors and puzzle windows that simplify the puzzle forest they look into and frame, not departing from the puzzle essence and puzzle materials that are our and every writer’s main concern – something like that haha. I guess that it’s show don’t tell at the level of language. The action is the creation of puzzle experiences that are really kinds of carnival mirrors, condensed reflections, reflections of more cryptic puzzle situations in real life through the creation of a word puzzle whose twisting edges are also keys to ‘solutions’ – to
new awareness. The mode of simultaneity and amalgamation – which is the natural mode of the neo cortex.I don’t want you to come away from my writing affirming what you already know, I want you to come away seeing, feeling and experiencing things differently. Differing from Ashbery, and the general Ashbery mode, perhaps, I have sought to move in and out of this counter-discursive mode of writing. I wilfully present lines of poetry at the barebones, literal extreme end of the poetry spectrum and then, without notice or warning, plunge my reader into the densest of abstract jigsaw foliage, then back again to sipping a cà phê sữa đá and blank mist drifting over a mountain. My hope with this is to present the double perspective that Ashbery’s mode explores intrinsically: the world that is discursively and verbally presented to us, and the way this presentation finds unique expression and modulation in the verbal, imagistic and emotional fusion of our reactor minds. For example, take these lines from different stanzas in my poem ‘Canary’ (Biota, pp 88):
…it’s fair to posit you have a material existence,
that the same kinds of rungs hammer our umbrella spheres…
I’d travelled with you in the taxi
and thought of you,
our hands had brushed
finding our seat-belt buckles.
Urn Yoda: Asymmetrical, symmetrical?
Martian Cumulonym: I certainly overshot this aspect of Biota, which is another reason I look forward to re-visiting the project. When I wrote Biota I was under a double-duress. Firstly, the whole of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and pressures on my mental health. Secondly, for the final stretch of the book, finishing the manuscript, the whole illustration collaboration phase and then editing and finalisation, I adamantly insisted on bringing the book to publication in time for me to reapply for the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) stipend scholarship for my fulltime PhD in creative writing at the University of Sydney (my PhD is for another book, please refer to my bio). Not the ideal circumstances to write a poetry book, to say the least. ‘Asymmetrical, symmetrical’ is intended to embody Noam Chomsky’s statement that language is both finite and infinite through a conceptual writing set up influenced by the conceptual writing of writers like Christian Bök, Raymond Roussel and Toby Fitch. At the time, I was juggling too much at once. The parenthesised reference to ‘Asymmetrical, symmetrical’ in Biota at the end of the presented description for the term ‘biota’ would serve better to be clearer. And most unfortunately where I overshoot most is with my execution of the conceptual set up. I wove into the manuscript several repetitions of different words, with no set numerical pattern, with the intention of the repetition emphasising the finiteness or symmetricity of word usage generally, by bring into relief the extent to which our language is conventional and repetitious, even those words we might take to be rare. In the editorial stage, when Gig Ryan asked me why there were so many repetitions (asked to do an endorsement she kindly offered me some editorial advice), I panicked under pressure and then removed many of them but arbitrarily left others so that what remains probably appears as just laziness. Anyway, I am excited at the prospect of properly introducing a conceptual set up to a new version of the book, in a more sophisticated and better communicated way. I want to explore micro and macro levels of language (or biota) and how they interrelate to make and unmake meaning, especially within the triangle of grammar, lexis and discourse. I also like the idea of a writer applying a conceptual set up to their pre-existing work, as Christian Bök would say, introducing a machine. So please keep an eye out!
In the meantime, I would like to introduce my illustrator, Floating Amoeba (aka Daniel de Filippo) whose surrealist translations of my surrealist shrine poems often outshine their shrine poem counterparts, with a blunt and delicate chiaroscuro style that brings to my mind both Hayao Miyazaki and Max Ernst. But if I can steal one more moment of you time, I’d also like to mention that Jake Goetz has just released his second collection of poetry with Apothecary Archive, Unplanned Encounters (2023) (see the link at the end of our interviews), which makes light of our dire and breezy contemporary Australian situation in all senses of making light or light making (cosmic, botanical, quotidian, comedic…).
Interview With the Illustrator, Floating Amoeba (aka Daniel de Filippo)
Urn Yoda: (After a glass or two of John and Zizi’s shiraz) Thank you, Daniel, for joining us to discuss your involvement in Biota. Can you start by telling us about your inspiration behind the illustrations in the book?
Floating Amoeba: Hi. Yes. The inspiration for the illustrations in Biota stems from, firstly being able to create something with my close friend Joel, and second, the ideas and thoughts that could be explored in this particular book were quite powerful for me. On one hand, I was drawn to the concept of ecological and social interconnectedness and the idea of organisms coexisting in various physical and geopolitical spaces – in Vietnam, in Australia and also globally. At the same time, making surreal translations of ‘ancestor shrines’ presented an intriguing challenge. I wanted to capture the essence of sacred spaces and the cultural and mythological elements they encompassed. By creating drawings that served as translations collaborating with and accompanying their poetic counterparts, I aimed to evoke a sense of the ephemeral and the shimmering presence of the shrine poems’ ghosts.
Urn Yoda: Fascinating how you merged ecological concepts with surreal translations of shrine poems and shrines in Biota. How did you approach this process of surreal translation into visual imagery?
Floating Amoeba: The translating process was a deeply engaging one done over several drafts. I immersed myself in the themes and emotions conveyed by each poem, allowing them to guide my artistic choices. There was reflection and revisiting between the shrine poem and image as I captured the essence and meaning of the shrines. While working on the illustrations, I aimed to maintain a balance between honouring the cultural context and infusing my own surrealist interpretations. This involved careful consideration of symbols, and composition to evoke their metaphysical and social significance.
Urn Yoda: The book encompasses elements of autobiography alongside the surrealist illustrations. How did you navigate this throughout the book?
Floating Amoeba: Exciting and challenging. We had lengthy discussions about Joel’s ideas of carefully curating the placement of the illustrations within the book. I approached my illustrations as visual counterparts to the written content, striving to complement and amplify the themes explored in each section. Some are autobiographical, some are commentary, in the shrine contribution, both are part of a tapestry of Joel and Daniel experiences.
Urn Yoda: How engage with Biota readers you hope?
Floating Amoeba: My hope is that readers will be intrigued by it. That the shrines evoke a sense of wonder and contemplation, encouraging readers to reflect on the complexity of the natural world and its intersections with complex human beliefs.
Urn Yoda: What’s next for you as an artist? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you’re excited to explore?
Floating Amoeba: Currently, I’m excited to continue illustration. A few projects are already in the pipeline. In the works are two projects further exploring shrines, including an update with Apothecary Archive of Biota. Another project in the early stages I’m working on will expand what drawing, a ‘traditional medium’, can do when in intersection with new technology. This is a project that applies my background in interactive and participatory art installation. I will be working throughout various artistic disciplines and will create immersive experiences participants can share in.
Joel Ephraims is a South-coast writer of Sri-Lankan heritage who has published two books of poetry, Through the Forest with Australian Poetry and Express Media’s New Voices Series in 2013 and, most recently, Biota with Apothecary Archive in 2022. In 2011 he won the Overland Judith Wright Prize for new and emerging poets and in 2016 he won the Overland NUW Fair Australia prize for poetry. In 2018 he was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and in 2022, for work on his conceptual, participatory novel and PhD thesis, 15238, he was granted a David Harold Postgraduate Research Fellowship by the University of Sydney. Joel’s poetry has appeared extensively in Australian literary publications for over a decade, in such places as: Griffith Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Marrickville Pause, Australian Poetry Journal, The Red Room Company, Overland, Rabbit, Seizure, Mascara Literary Review, The Australian Weekend Review and Otoliths, among others. An updated version of Biota (in collaboration again with the illustrator, Daniel de Filippo) is in the works with Apothecary Archive. Joel’s third book of poetry, Vaanya’s Ghosts, will soon be forthcoming. He can be contacted at: ‘email@example.com’.
Daniel de Filippo, a multi-disciplinary artist hailing from the Illawarra, has exhibited works in galleries that range from wax sculptures to screen-based work. As a film director, he won the Newcastle Real Film Festival’s best short film with “Thirteen Things To Say When You Are Breaking Up With Someone” (2013). Other than Biota, Daniel’s most recently released work “Register” (2021) explored the role technology plays in organising human beings. Biota is Daniel’s first time published as an illustrator, despite many years practicing underground. He currently works at Beyond Empathy and can be contacted at: ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
You can read more of and purchase Biota (2022) with Apothecary Archive
You can read some of and purchase Jake Goetz’s Unplanned Encounters (2023) with Apothecary Archive
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.
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer. Her second poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair was long listed for the ALS Gold Medal for an outstanding literary work in 2020 and is published by Wakefield Press. Her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can, was published in 2018, also by Wakefield Press, with a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon in 2022. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched to critical acclaim at Sydney Writers Festival (2008) and in the UK (2009). www.aliwhitelock.com
This lockdown has seemed endless, reflecting back to March 2020 when I was first sent home from the office, temporarily we thought, I’ve now endured more than eighteen months of working from home, an interrupted social calendar, sporadic lapses in concentrated reading and writing, and all of the other associated ills that most are now to blasé to even consider.
Take a moment to feel for those writers whose books were released, or scheduled for release, during the last eighteen months. Launches, readings, hoopla and hurrah all cancelled, whilst their works attempt to garner support via social media channels and via online sales.
Ali Whitelock, Scottish born and Australian resident, is one such writer, her second collection from Wakefield Press, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown. Zoom book launches had not even been thought of at the time, so yet another writer must start swimming harder against the currents to get their work recognized.
Similar to her first book published by Wakefield, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, Ali Whitelock’s poetry approaches personal places in a raw and open manner, as the opening lines of the first poem “in the silence of the custard” attest:
Night crept in, stumbled and fell at my feet
badgers keeked from hedgerows
window wipers wiped, grouse tails flashed, patsy
cline played on the stereo i listened in the dark and fell to pieces.
Onomatopoeia, alliteration, and metaphor abound, in these poems that address personal subjects such as grief, hysterectomies, climate change and politics. Spiced with irony, the juxtaposition of helplessness with humour is unbalancing, you move from shock to smile within lines and once done return for another reading.
…now the ice caps are melting & the fucking polar bears are dying.
then trump got elected. i tried to write a poem about this heat but it ended
up being about the daughter i never had & sadness crept up behind me,
put its hand over my mouth and pulled me backwards into a filthy dark
alley i hadn’t been game enough to venture into before.
– from “kmart sells out of cheap fans made in china”
Trump, “turbo charged” air conditioned shopping malls, attempted suicides, unborn children, climate change, and dying polar bears all in a single poem with an ironic title. However, it is the helplessness, the impossibility of a single person making a difference that rings true throughout.
Ali Whitelock carefully balances the broad social issues with her deeply personal revelations, a reconciliation with her father before his death, her personal health problems come up against cures such as “chrysanthemum tea” or humour such as the process of writing a poem in “a poem walked into a bar”, the opening section here:
thrust a sheet of A4 paper into my hands, said,
‘here, have this.’
‘what do you mean?’ i said, ‘what is it?’
‘it’s a poem,’ the poem said. ‘a poem?’ i quizzed.
‘aye, a poem,’ the scottish poem replied.
‘ well how come you’re just handing it to me?’ i said
‘because,’ the poem said, ‘i’ve been watching you from the driver’s
seat of my big poetry bus and every time i pull up at your stop
i see you hunched over your laptop only stopping now and again
to get a cup of that kombucha or whatever the fuck it is you’re drinking
these days, or to rub the RSI in your forearms from your too much typing
and i see you agonise trying to find exactly the right word with exactly
the right weight that conveys the exact emotion you are trying
to get down on the exact page exactly no one gives a flying fuck about.’
Formal poetic processes such as responses to other poems, ekphrastic musings or found lines all make their appearance in this varied and readable collection. As Ali Whitelock’s work matures there appears to be a more sinister, wiser head, she’s “veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces” as she explains in her interview.
As always with any interview subject I would like to sincerely thank Ali Whitelock for her time and honesty in answering my questions.
T.M: Both of your books, from Wakefield Press, have interesting covers, your first, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, has a photo of you looking directly at the reader, as though “I’m open here, I’m sharing my life’s moments with you”, the second, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, you appear more knowing, Rodin’s ‘Thinker’. Two questions here, did you have a say in the cover designs? And is it a case of the more you write the more circumspect you become?
A.W: Ah, cover design. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to anything visual, so I leave cover design to Wakefield Press and their vast experience in publishing. Given my poems are deeply personal and very revealing, I completely understood the rationale to go with my face on the cover. Still, it did feel a bit confronting in the beginning, which was weird because what was I afraid of? Being exposed? I’d already exposed just about everything about myself in the pages of the book, so why stop at the cover? So I gave myself a bit of a talking to and now I don’t think twice about it.
As for ‘the more I write the more circumspect I become’, I have always taken risks in my writing, and that continues. The moment I find myself thinking, ‘oh shit, I can’t say that’, then I definitely have to say that. Having an edge of fear as I write brings an excitement for me and an edge to the process which I hope translates into the finished poem. If I’m not excited by what I write, how can I expect anyone else to be excited by it? And while we’re on the subject, what is a writing life without risk and fear? I’m reminded of Robert Dessaix in his book Night Letters where he writes about his character Robert stepping out of the doctor’s office after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. Robert becomes, suddenly, very acutely aware that until that point in his life he’d always taken the orderly, well lit path through life and had never ventured off it into the undergrowth. With my writing, my excitement comes from veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces and trying to express myself as individually and originally as I can. My pal, and poet, Magi Gibson, once said, ‘You know Ali, your metaphors are daringly banal’, which I loved because that’s precisely what they are. They are always rooted in the every day banality of baked beans and fried eggs and our basic human foibles. I am not one for the grandiose. (I was chatting with Magi recently and I brought up her ‘daringly banal’ comment. Magi immediately pointed out that when she’d said that, she’d also said they were breathtakingly beautiful:) There you go Magi, the record has been set straight!)
At risk of banging on, your question also reminded of a time when I was in the audience at an opera masterclass at the Sydney Conservatorium. I wasn’t singing in the class although I was having private singing lessons at the time. The visiting American professor was trying to get the students to be less wooden as they sang. As the day drew to a close he urged the singers not to fear and not to hold back as they sang. He ended the masterclass with this exquisite line: ‘Safe singing. What’s the point?’ Perhaps that’s where I got my own writing philosophy from –– ‘Safe writing. What’s the point?’
TM: In James Tate’s poem ‘It Happens Like This’ the protagonist looks after the town’s goat. In your homage ‘natural born goat killer’ you inadvertently kill the goat. How did this leap occur?
A.W.: I used to gather all my veggie scraps for my neighbour’s goat. Around the same time a dear friend of mine (who also has goats) asked her neighbour to feed them while she was away. Her neighbour inadvertently fed the goats rhododendron leaves not knowing they were poisonous to goats. One of the goats tragically died. I could only imagine how devastated my friend’s neighbour must have felt. After that I became terrified that I may, unwittingly, feed poisonous vegetable matter to my neighbour’s goat, so I would Google any of my more unusual vegetable matter to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. It was around about this time I stumbled on James Tate’s poem (also involving a goat). It is such a quirky poem and it inspired me to write down my very real fears about unintentionally murdering a goat and having an entire village turn against me as a result. For the record, I love animals more than I do humans and the worst thing I can imagine is having unintentionally caused an animal harm. Perhaps the true genesis of my goat poem centres around a time when I was around 17 and my cat had two kittens, Morticia and Pandora. One day, when the kittens were still little, probably only 12 weeks old, I got into my car and reversed out of the driveway not knowing that Pandora was under the car. I can’t begin to tell you of the horror that unfolded. The kitten died a horrific death. So maybe in some way my goat poem is speaking to the fear, horror and devastation that still lives in me since I, however unintentionally, killed my own kitten.
T.M: The poem ‘if life is unbearable’ was obviously written pre-Covid, but it is reminiscent of lockdowns, baking crazes etc. Are you a prophet?
A.W: Ha ha, yes. But obviously, no. Look, the dark place we inhabit in ourselves is the place where all the juicy stuff lives––all the secrets, lies, fears, regrets, love, hate, shame, the list goes on. This poem comes from that same dark place inside of me and tries to speak to the banality and extraordinary weight of mechanically trying to enact things that are meant to bring us a sense of purpose or perhaps joy, (be that baking a cake or a loaf of sourdough or [insert your own sense of purpose/joy here] ), despite the fact that some mornings you can barely lift your head off the pillow. This poem seems to say, whatever’s going on in your life, you still somehow have to find it in yourself to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that can feel like an incredible burden.
This next bit may be slightly unrelated, but bear with me. I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld accepting the Clio Award from the Advertising industry for services to advertising. Who knew Jerry wrote ads? Anyway, Jerry gives an acceptance speech which is super scathing of the advertising industry. The audience of advertisers laugh heartily as he says, ‘I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of their hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy’ and goes on to say, ‘if your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things’. It’s such a philosophical moment that comments so loudly and clearly on what it is that’s meant to make us happy, ie., buying stuff. The message from advertisers and capitalism at large is all we have to do is spend money and we’ll be happy. Well, this aspect of society is one I rail against and I guess it’s what I’m also (albeit less obviously) railing against in this poem––this idea that all you have to do is XYZ or buy ABC and we’ll all be happy. Well, I’m afraid simply doing XY Z or buying ABC may not be the answer for all of us. This poem is trying to acknowledge that in this shit storm of a world (where we’re bombarded by advertising and social media lies), how difficult it can be to keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of how we are actually feeling. For some light relief, here’s a link to Jerry’s speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHWX4pG0FNY
T.M: These are very personal poems, working through stages of grief, hysterectomies, bodily changes. Is it a cathartic experience to work through and craft these subjects onto a page?
A.W: My catharsis comes from the regular therapy that I’ve been having since, oooh, around 1995. When I’m writing my poems, it’s never about trying to work through my experiences (bodily or otherwise). I’ve never sat back after finishing and poem and thought, well, I’m glad I sorted that shit out. By the time I come to write a poem I’ve already emotionally and psychologically processed whatever it is I needed to process and that’s why I can then go on and write the poem freely, honestly and without fear of consequence. So really, when I write what I’m doing is retelling (not reliving) my stories/experiences in ways that are as poetic, artistic and original as I can make them. I wonder how my poems would come out if I hadn’t already processed the issues before hand. The phrase, madwoman’s breakfast comes to mind.
T.M: In your author’s note, again obviously written pre-Covid, speaks of Edinburgh, Melbourne, Sydney, how has the restriction of travel impacted your full-time writing, and of course your poetry readings?
A.W: For the last twenty years I’ve had a house full of pets. Because I’m an animal maniac, this has meant I haven’t been able/prepared to travel as much as I would have liked. Sadly the last of our fur family (Nellie the cat) died last year. We had her for 21 years, her brother Angus for 19. Our darling Hector The Dog left us the year before Angus. We’d always said when the last of our pets departed we’d head to Scotland and France for an extended period. But when Nellie died, Covid was here and we were in lockdown . So here we are––perfectly able to travel because we have no pet responsibilities, but unable to travel because of the virus.
My latest book was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown in March 2020. The lockdown was so fresh, Zoom launches weren’t even a thing yet––look at us now! So in lieu of a launch, I video recorded myself making a bit of a launch speech. Nellie The Cat made an unexpected appearance and naturally the video was infinitely better as a result. When Nellie died, as a tribute to her I edited the video to show less of me and all of the Nellie highlights. It’s right here if you fancy watching. She was damn cute (if not super demanding). RIP little girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSe1hY6nwVA
As for poetry readings, when live readings opened up briefly in Sydney in May and June 2021, I made hay while the sun shone. But yes, both lockdowns have clearly massively impacted all of us, let alone us poets.
T.M: How has this impacted your writing practice?
A.W: I still write every day so the lockdown hasn’t affected my writing practice. But I’m sure it has affected/influenced what I’m writing on a day to day basis. If there’d been no pandemic I’d have based myself in the remote Scottish highlands or France (my husband is French) for a few months so there’s no doubt I’d be writing something different to what I’m writing now. I can’t help fantasising about writing in a French medieval village––wandering around with a pen in my hand and freshly baked baguette under my unshaved armpit.
During this most recent lockdown I finished writing a new collection. Luckily for me, before Covid graced our shores, I already had a writing routine which I lived and died by––nothing gets in the way of that. For me, writing is all about the routine, the showing up for it every single day. When I sit down to write each morning, I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I lift the lid and start salivating.
T.M: How do you see the relationship between style & form (for example you use various styles, responses, slides, prose, concrete) and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
A.W: Mark Tredinnick once said, ‘the poem escapes from the form.’ This was way back when I first started writing poetry and I had no idea what this could mean. But eventually, I started to see that some poems looked and read better and seemed to come to life when they were laid out on the page in a certain way. So the relationship between style and form is massively important. I think the form adds a new layer to the meaning of the work and makes the poem more whole, more 3D, more complete.
How do I know which layout will be the right one? I don’t really know, for me it’s just a feeling. As I’m writing, I move lines around, indent things, centre things, make shapes … I experiment with various forms and miraculously, one will fit and the poem will be brought to life. I think writing overall is like learning to make bread. Eventually you understand how much yeast to put in without weighing it, you understand when the mixture needs more flour, you understand how long you will have to knead it before putting it in the oven. Your writing process becomes intuitive and personal to you. This is why making writing a regular and routine practice is so beneficial. The more time you spend kneading a poem, I think the better you get at it.
T.M: I ask about your writing practice & the impact of Covid, however looking back, once you had made the decision to be a full-time writer, what were your main creative challenges and have they changed over time?
A.W: My biggest initial challenge was getting over the fear of not being able to produce. I had given up a salaried job in order to pursue my writing dreams. The fears were there from the start – what if I sit down and can’t write a word? What if what I do write is crap? What if I’ve been kidding myself all this time and I’m not a writer but a big fat loser? We’re all familiar with that negative self talk. So I didn’t try to get over those fears. Instead I sat down to write with the fears in the room. I invited them to ‘come and pull up a chair, but please, keep the fucking noise down cause I’m trying to get some writing done here.’ From day one, somehow, I felt if all I could do was merely show up, then the writing would take care of itself. Somehow I knew I had to create the environment where writing could exist as opposed to the pressure of, ‘I’m now sitting down to write’. I also knew I had to give myself permission to write crap. One of the other challenges for me was to accept that each day will not bring about a masterpiece. That’s just a fact. But over time, if you chip away at it, if you keep showing up every day and making space where writing can happen, you might just write something that makes you happy.
And here’s the thing, writing is not only about producing ‘good writing’. A day of writing may yield some good writing, but in my case, mostly it will be mediocre or crap. This doesn’t get me down. I now have enough experience to know that the bad and mediocre writing can and will be made into something that’s good. The mediocrity is just the first draft. Once the mediocrity is down, then begins the real writing––where I have to work hard to make my mediocrity into something that’s good. I can only achieve that by the hard work of chipping away at it every day. Writing, for me, is always hard work but it’s never a chore. There’s a massive difference.
T.M: I ask all my subjects this question as it has built a great reading list, what are you reading right now?
Contempt –– by Alberto Moravia.
Oh my god, this book. The Boston Review says, ‘The most striking aspect of Moravia’s fiction isn’t its once-daring sexual focus, but the cool calculated way it looks at love – or lack of it – in the modern world.’ The atmosphere created in this book is mind blowing.
Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel –– by Annie Cohen-Solal.
I’m a huge fan of Rothko’s work. This book maps the journey of Mark Rothko from young Jewish migrant to world renowned artist. Fascinating insights into the jealousy between artists of the time and the quest to gain recognition and the disdain these new expressionist artists held for the establishment of the time.
Conversations with John Berryman –– Edited by Eric Hoffman.
I have a fascination with Berryman. This series of conversations satisfies me in ways I can’t quite explicate.
Anthropology and a hundred other stories –– by Dan Rhodes.
Little snippets/single paragraphs detailing lost loves. I dip into this book time and again, it is gorgeous, tragic, tender, funny & utterly joyous.
The Only Story –– by Julian Barnes.
An utterly engrossing novel. So tender and heartbreaking.
Stuff on my Cat –– by Mario Garza
Because who doesn’t want to look at photographs of a cat with whipped cream and a cherry on its head –– or a cheeseburger on its back?
T.M: And finally, what are you working on at the moment, anything you can share with us?
A.W: I’m working on a second memoir about travelling around Scotland with my brother. I’m looking forward to the day when I can get back to Scotland to complete the travel and hope to write it holed up in a rickety fisherman’s cottage somewhere in the north west corner of Scotland, gazing out across the Minch, a peaty malt in my hand, perhaps even a sprig of heather in my hair.
Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Sublunary Editions in the USA and Burning House Press in the UK. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @Messy_tony
Chris Andrews’ latest translation, Melodrome (2018), published here in Australia as part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes Series, is a novella by the Argentine science fiction writer, Marcelo Cohen (1951-). The author of 14 novels, 5 story collections, many essays and countless translations, Cohen is already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. He lived in Spain from 1975 to 1996, during the dictatorship in Argentina, and has been publishing fiction since the early 1980s.
In Melodrome, as in several other fictions written since he returned home, Cohen focuses on an alternative universe, the Panoramic Delta. An archipelago of loosely associated city states, it might be a near-future Argentina or a world remade in the country’s image by neoliberal capitalism and rising sea levels. Rather than improve living standards, technological and social change – including cyborgs, fly cars and a kind of telepathy called pan-consciousness – have universalised Argentina’s early 21st century experience of austerity economics. Cohen’s novella, published in Spanish as Balada (2011), concerns the aftermath of a turbulent affair between a psychoanalyst, Suano Botilecue, and his beautiful, temperamental patient, Lerena Dost. The two rekindle their relationship during a road trip in search of a folk singer-turned cult leader, Dona Munava. It’s an intriguing introduction to an author whose rich oeuvre is still largely unknown in the Anglosphere – but won’t be for long. I corresponded with Chris Andrews by email to learn more.
James Halford (JH): This is the first of your translations of Latin American writers to have been published in Australia. How did it come about?
Chris Andrews (CA): Marcelo Cohen participated in a symposium on literary translation organized by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University in 2010. I had read some of his fiction and essays before that. Ivor Indyk was one of the organizers of the symposium, so he met Marcelo there. When Balada was published in 2011, Marcelo sent me a copy. I read it and really liked it; I found it haunting. Some years later, in 2016, I think, Ivor was invited to visit Argentina, and met up with Marcelo again. When he came back, he asked me if I would translate Balada for Giramondo, and I said yes. So it came about in a circuitous and rather slow way.
JH: Would it be fair to say Cohen’s work hasn’t yet been widely translated? How did you first encounter his writing and what attracted you to bringing it into English?
CA: I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps because it’s quite tricky to translate, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. I first encountered it in the book of stories La solución parcial (The Partial Solution), which is a kind of selected stories, published in Spain in 2003. Although the stories predate the construction of the Delta Panorámico, they are part of what Cohen calls a “fantastic sociology”: they’re set in a future world where social, political and technological conditions are at least initially unfamiliar to the reader. What attracted me was that within this speculative frame, Cohen was always interested in capturing and transmitting sensations, feelings and emotions.
JH: Cohen has an extensive back catalogue. Why did you choose Melodrome as an introduction to his work?
CA: Well, as I said, I really liked it, and Ivor Indyk is particularly interested in short novels and novellas (he has a series entitled Shorts). That’s an aesthetic interest, but translation is an extra cost in publishing, a cost proportional to length, since translators are paid by the word (or the thousand words), so starting with a short book is financially prudent too.
JH: Cohen often coins neologisms for everyday objects in the Panoramic Delta – cronodión for clock which you translate as chronodeon; farphonito for mobile phone, which you translate as farfonette. What was your approach to finding English equivalents?
CA: Sometimes the objects named by the neologisms are everyday objects or relatives of things that we have and use, as in the examples you cite. And those two words were relatively straightforward to translate, because English has some cognate morphemes that I could use: chrono- for crono-, and -ette for -ito. Far in farphonito is a “translation” of the Greek-derived prefix tele- (“far off”), and I toyed with translating that component into Spanish: Lejofonette. But the result seemed too cumbersome and opaque, so I stuck with far. In other cases, it was more complex, either because the referent was not as easy to place, or because the word itself was not made up of recognizable morphemes, or for both reasons. To take just one example, at one point, Lerena thinks: “She could no doubt have found an even better position in some other company, but she couldn’t see how she would ever disguise her character well enough to stop [ningún binimucho] shrivelling up with fear.” Binimuchos must be fearful, spineless people. One thought I had was that perhaps the word referred to the opposite of a marimacho (butch woman), i.e., an effeminate man. But I wasn’t really convinced by that gendering. In the end, the “equivalent” that I came up with, more or less intuitively, was nambicle, from the adjective namby-pamby plus the diminutive suffix -icle, which we find in the names of various small body parts (testicle, cuticle, clavicle). In forging these new words, I let myself be influenced by the rhythmic context of the sentence and the paragraph, because that’s what Cohen seems to have done when writing.
JH: The translated title doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. How did you arrive at the lovely and resonant: Melodrome?
CA: Credit where it’s due: that’s the invention of Nick Tapper at Giramondo. We were looking for an alternative to Ballad, and Nick came up with Melodrome. He put it out there half playfully, but I liked it straight away, because of how it sounds and because it’s so suggestive of the book’s content. You can analyse it as the combination of two Greek roots: melos, song, and dromos, course. Most appropriate for a road trip in search of a singer. And then the book is a kind of narrative palindrome, because the way there and the way back almost coincide.
JH: Cohen is a formidable and prolific literary translator in his own right, who has produced Spanish versions of writers like J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, William Burroughs and even Henry James. Did you have any contact with him while working on your English version? What was it like translating a translator?
CA: Marcelo sent me a glossary of deltingo, that is, words he has invented for the Delta Panorámico. Many of the invented words in Melodrome are not in the glossary, but it was a real help, and a fascinating document in itself. I also asked him questions when I was approaching the end, and he helped me to clear up some doubts. In one way it’s intimidating to translate such an eminent translator, but in another way it’s reassuring: I knew that he would understand the problems that I was facing.
JH: Roberto Bolaño once said that everything he had written was a love letter or a farewell letter to his own generation. That is, the generation of Latin American writers who were born in the 1950s and had the misfortune of being young during the military dictatorships of the 1970s. César Aira and Marcelo Cohen are also of that generation. What, if anything, do these very distinct writers share?
CA: Stylistically and thematically, they don’t share much at all: each is quite different from the other two. Bolaño and Cohen shared the experience of exile in Catalunya. Bolaño is the only one of the three to have thematized the dictatorships directly, but in that he is representative of his generation, while Cohen and Aira are exceptional. Your question has made me realize something, though: all three are novelists for whom poetry is important, who go to poetry as a space where literary language is reinvented. Bolaño began as a poet (and went on writing poetry up to the last months of his life). Cohen and Aira have both written wonderfully about poetry, Cohen in his book-length essay Un año sin primavera [A Year Without Spring] and Aira in his books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Edward Lear.
JH: Historically, there hasn’t been much direct literary exchange between the Anglophone and Hispanic Souths. Even for those with an interest in Latin American writing and some language competency, it isn’t always easy to keep up to date with the Spanish-language literary scene from Australia. How do you do it?
CA: The internet has made a big difference. I read reviews in a range of places. Otra parte semanal, edited by Marcelo Cohen and Graciela Speranza, is an excellent review site with new content each week: http://revistaotraparte.com/semanal/. Another good source of news, interviews, extracts etc. is the blog published by the bookshop and publishing house Eterna Cadencia: https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog.html
JH: I also like podcasts. There’s a weekly books podcast on Radio Nacional de Argentina called Resaltadores: http://www.radionacional.com.ar/category/resaltadores/, and there’s one called Recital (it’s on the iTunes store), in which a writer chooses and reads a story by another writer: very simple, but the choices are interesting, not the same old names.
And, of course, I ask friends for recommendations.
JH: Your academic work has framed contemporary Latin American fiction as a literary laboratory – a place where experimental forms are tested. What could a deeper engagement with writing from the region offer Australian writing?
CA: I think that deeper engagement with the literary culture of any part of the non-English-speaking world is bound to enrich Australian writing, but in ways that are hard to predict because they will depend on singular encounters. Fans of Alejo Carpentier or José Donoso might hope to see Australian authors enlarging their sense of the plausible, but writers will work with what works for them, and they might be inspired instead by all the patient fieldwork and sharp listening that goes into Leila Guerriero’s narrative non-fiction. There’s no point being prescriptive in this area.
JH: Thanks very much, Chris.
Marcelo Cohen (Buenos Aires, 1951) is a widely respected and highly innovative Argentinian novelist, who has invented a distinctively South American kind of speculative fiction. In an ambitious series of novels and stories he has constructed a future world, the Panoramic Delta, in which he imagines in detail a range of changes beyond those wrought directly by technology: political, cultural and emotional. One of the most agile stylists writing in Spanish today, he is also an internationally renowned translator, critic and editor. An fundamental name in Argentinian literature of the last two decades.’— Fernando Bogado, Radar‘
CHRIS ANDREWS is a leading translator of contemporary Latin American fiction, the author of two poetry collections and a literary critic. He made his name internationally as the first English translator of the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). His translations of By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004) and Last Evenings on Earth (2006) – published in the wake of the author’s untimely death from liver failure – helped establish Bolaño as the biggest name in Latin American writing since Gabriel García Márquez. Since then, the Australian has been a translator in demand. Over the last fifteen years, he has curated an impressive reading list of Latin American fiction for English-speaking readers, much of published in the USA through New Directions. In addition to ten of Bolaño’s books, most recently the posthumous collection of short stories & ephemera, The Secret of Evil (2014), Andrews has translated nine titles by the prolific and inventive Argentine, César Aira: The Linden Tree (2018), and one by the Guatemalan surrealist, Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Severina (2014).
JAMES HALFORD is a Brisbane writer whose creative work and criticism have been widely published in Australia and abroad. He holds a literature degree and a creative doctorate from the University of Queensland, where he now teaches, and he has studied Spanish in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. The recipient of a 2016 Copyright Agency/Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship, his academic research focuses on contemporary Australian and Latin American literature in transnational reading frameworks. His first book, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies, a Latin American travel memoir, will be published in early 2019 by UWAP.
In Some Ways Dingo
by Melody Paloma
Rabbit Poetry Journal
You called a taxi?
No, we called a garbage truck.
But you’ll have to do the job.
(Jim Jarmusch ‘Night on Earth’)
At the Melbourne launch of In Some Ways Dingo, fellow poet Sian Vate likened Melody Paloma’s debut collection to a road movie and on first reading I agree, a road movie where that endless horizon signifies loss or melancholy. And during the journey the poet acts as a bowerbird collecting urban myths, cult movies, and your pre-loved junk before arranging it all intricately onto the page, courting you to delve further.
As a passenger in Melody Paloma’s taxi you travel through beaches, “through traffic lights in Brunswick” in Melbourne, into cinemas and front yards, observing and collecting, the cab isn’t big enough for you to contain your experiences, a larger receptacle, a garbage truck, is required.
In the morning I make a catalogue
for the front yard of that one house on the street
that’s really fucking things up
in part it includes:
bird of paradise
I think about placing it in their letterbox
not to be facetious
but as a memorial to memorial.
(from ‘Small acts of self-preservation; After the film, 20,000 Days on Earth’)
As you are allured by the bowerbird’s intricate display and delve into the detritus, the collecting and recollection of memories you begin to see a deeper exploration and questioning of the Australian psyche. You travel through the ancient landscape of Australia, a place misshapen by colonial intervention.
I interviewed Melody Paloma about In Some Ways Dingo and her current project, a yearlong writing exercise currently titled “Some Days”. As the poet explains; “I’m definitely interested in memory and nostalgia, as both problems and solutions. I think memory works in a lot of different directions so it makes sense for it to be appearing across my work in different forms; on the one hand we have memorialsation and nostalgia as a colonial problem, the way forgetting is intrinsic to memory, then there is the way Country remembers everything, something that is impossible to erase.”
“Country” playing an important thematic role in this book:
It’s just up past the station
bottom of a cliff
ghost gum across the face, until the Finke.
Empty now/not always:
in the ‘80’s a family huddled in a cave
watched pieces of the station
lift and float away.
(from ‘Tree Index’)
It is not only “country” paying a thematic role here, we also have the native Australian dog. As Melody Paloma explains, when asked about her numerous references to the dingo; “I’m interested in the way settler Australians interpret and represent dingoes. To me, these representations seem to include a range of fixed idea of dingo which mutate according to social determinants. Though different, each are equally colonising for the ways in which they control and distract. The images Australia uses to represent itself on a national and international scale, specifically those images that relate to landscape, flora and fauna, masquerade as soft and palatable but in reality, are actually incredibly violent when we start to dissect the reasons for their construction. Australia is kind of hell-bent on appearing as cute and loveable, a desire ultimately born out of its own white anxiety. Kitsch in relation to animalism is a direct example of this, I’m thinking specifically of the proliferation of big roadside ‘things’ (e.g. the big koala) as well as representations in children’s books (e.g. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill, on which Evelyn Araluen is writing an essay I am keenly awaiting). These examples of kitsch, among others, distract from any real conversation around Australia’s ongoing genocide, simultaneously, they are reductive and attempt to override Indigenous stories of and relationships to native flora and fauna.”
Sparse and vast this collection of twenty-seven poems travels from the coastal, “AMAZING FACTS ABOUT WHALES!” reflecting on the “coast of Esperance”, to “camping in the centre”, “Wolf(e) Creek”, and taking in suburban, “climb up on the roof for a view/of the car park” in “Hyper-reactive”, a long and multi-faceted journey through the vast Australian landscape.
You jump into Melody Paloma’s hire car, slide across the bitumen “until the vibrato of a cattle grid” which shakes you into recognising the deeper ecological and colonial messages at play here. Part of the poem “Special Values and Characteristics” being taken from the “Lake Gardiner National Park Management Plan. Adelaide: Department for Environment and Heritage. 2004” where “cultural values for Aboriginal people” can sit alongside “A geological resource that may have mining potential” and “A regional tourism resource”. A site where at 11am “the guy who runs things in his jocks/winnie blue and a JB”, a “scenic, aesthetic and wilderness” is also “a venue of international-standard for high-speed motor vehicle trials”, where “Special landscape appeal” sits alongside “’how fast can you go?’/record it in miles”.
Throughout there are obvious shifts between extremes, for example the poem “We should help her” juxtaposed against a later poem “We should kill it”, as Melody Paloma explains; “I think extremities are probably important for me, part of my process involves making myself feel uncomfortable. Often poems enact or perform scenes that are problematic, specifically in regards to Australia, the colonial consciousness and whiteness. I want to interrogate how this manifests in a collective sense, historically/socially/politically/economically, but it also needs to be personal as I’m obviously not separate to these problems. I don’t exist outside of them, none of us do. I think in order to make a reader experience discomfort in a way that encourages interrogation you have to experience that first hand through the practice of writing itself, otherwise it dissolves into virtue signalling.”
It is through this interrogation of “Australianess”, by writing about collecting paraphernalia, selfies, images of iconic places, merged with a soundtrack of Kylie, Nick Cave, Taylor Swift, that Melody Paloma creates a rigorous questioning of what it means to live in this country, as she explains; “I’m also interested in the pop culture references and artefacts that we attempt to assimilate and how this affects the ways we interpret and interact with our own history (often in a way that deals in erasure rather than truth-telling). I’m thinking about this also on a technological scale, specifically in terms of the medias we use to talk about and understand place.
The ways in which settlers move through this country are too often done without care, sensitivity or willingness to interrogate. Tourism feeds off this sort of problematic image making I’ve touched on and refuses acknowledgement of any kind of ongoing genocide (to do so would be bad for the brand).”
The ninth collection to appear as part of the Rabbit Poets Series, In Some Ways Dingo opens with the poem “Hyper-reactive” the recipient of the 2014 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging poets. It is a thought-provoking collection where the “once found heinous” will “outlast memory” a reflection on what it is to be Australian.
At the time of writing, “Some Days” runs to thirty-two pages, broken into monthly instalments, containing working notes and social media references, questioning such subjects as Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Myall Creek massacre. However, it is also laced with humour, is “Dannii Minogue in Westfield, shopping for jocks” or “The best of us remain / Bored. / Heavy Bored.” When asked about the rigors involved in a yearlong writing practice, Melody Paloma explains; “My ego sometimes has to block out the idea that anyone can look at it at any point; because I have to add to it each day, there is often some really bad writing up there, and sometimes sections will exist as notes or thoughts before they ‘become poetic’, so to speak. For example, all of the section ‘August’ is at this point just notational. Obviously, I have to remind myself though that all of this is part of the point, that it’s a performance of ‘writerly-ness’ and also ‘readerly-ness’.”
Take in the journey that is In Some Ways Dingo, collect the artefacts on offer, make sure you leave something behind for the travellers that come later, and as you are contemplating your new found treasures, log on to Stale Objects Press and observe where in the nation the bowerbird is currently collecting, there are plenty of riches on offer, you may even find a second hand telescope in a Woolworths carpark. Something you can use to explore beyond your current place.
Maybe I should have likened In Some Ways Dingo to an American style road-movie, not a horizon of melancholy or loss but one where the horizon signifies hope.
Note: This review contains highlights of a more extensive interview with Melody Paloma, below is the full interview:
TM: Dingoes are not simply in the title of your book, they appear from time to time in your recent work too. What is the connection to the native dog?
MP: I’m interested in the way settler Australians interpret and represent dingoes. To me, these representations seem to include a range of fixed ideas of dingo which mutate according to social determinants. Though different, each are equally colonising for the ways in which they control and distract. The images Australia uses to represent itself on a national and international scale, specifically those images that relate to landscape, flora and fauna, masquerade as soft and palatable but in reality, are actually incredibly violent when we start to dissect the reasons for their construction. Australia is kind of hell-bent on appearing as cute and loveable, a desire ultimately born out of its own white anxiety. Kitsch in relation to animalism is a direct example of this, I’m thinking specifically of the proliferation of big roadside ‘things’ (e.g. the big koala) as well as representations in children’s books (e.g. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill, on which Evelyn Araluen is writing an essay I am keenly awaiting). These examples of kitsch, among others, distract from any real conversation around Australia’s ongoing genocide, simultaneously, they are reductive and attempt to override Indigenous stories of and relationships to native flora and fauna.
The thing about dingoes is that kitsch hasn’t really worked, there’s this real confusion for settlers about what a dingo actually is, the result of which is that we’ve had to keep recreating images of dingo that aren’t necessarily cute but still serve to control. There are three particularly ingrained representations of dingo that I’m interested in: the mythic graceful dingo (the dingo that is heard and not seen with which human encounters are brief and scarce), the dingo as murderous beast (fortified by the Lindy Chamberlain case), and the dingo as pest (enforced by the ultimate sign, The Dingo Fence). I think part of the reason why the Chamberlain case was maintained by such hype and continues to be so insidious is because it threw into question our idea of dingo, the colonial consciousness didn’t want to let go of the mythic graceful dingo that it had worked hard to establish, so the result was frenzy. However, rather than interrogate this, we created a new image – dingo as murderer, the dingo that should be eradicated. Of course, this also fits nicely with the other image of dingo as pest. None of these images of dingo actually touch on the reality of dingo. Settlers only ever access part of the thing. It’s not the actual dingo that is in some ways, but the images we use to represent it.
TM: Memory, nostalgia, appears intermittently in your work (for example, “place a tick next to those that will / outlast memory” and “This brown, deeper than soil, / not a colour we remember”), this seems counterintuitive to a yearlong poetry practice that we can “witness being written”. Does reflection play an important role in your work?
MP: I’m definitely interested in memory and nostalgia, as both problems and solutions. I think memory works in a lot of different directions so it makes sense for it to be appearing across my work in different forms; on the one hand we have memorialisation and nostalgia as a colonial problem, the way forgetting is intrinsic to memory, then there is the way Country remembers everything, something that is impossible to erase. There’s also personal memory and psychoanalytic interpretations of and interactions with the poem, specifically the way the poem has the capacity to hide or bury memories. The latter is something I am finding I’m engaging with in Some Days, rather than attempting to set it up as a work that is consciously diarising or confessing.
TM: In Some Ways Dingo shifts between extremes, for example “We should help her” juxtaposed against “We should kill it”, are there any boundaries in your poetic practice?
MP: I think extremities are probably important for me, part of my process involves making myself feel uncomfortable. Often poems enact or perform scenes that are problematic, specifically in regards to Australia, the colonial consciousness and whiteness. I want to interrogate how this manifests in a collective sense, historically/socially/politically/economically, but it also needs to be personal as I’m obviously not separate to these problems. I don’t exist outside of them, none of us do. I think in order to make a reader experience discomfort in a way that encourages interrogation you have to experience that first-hand through the practice of writing itself, otherwise it dissolves into virtue signalling.
TM: As a frequent visitor to central Australia I was personally attached to several of your poems recalling that region. I get the feeling your work looks inwards for cultural references, rather than outwards from the shore. Is that a fair assessment?
MP: That is a fair assessment, but I’m also very interested in the ways Australia enters an international conversation, specifically how it performs its Australian-ness. This relates specifically to some of what I was saying before about image production, but I’m also interested in the pop culture references and artefacts that we attempt to assimilate and how this affects the ways we interpret and interact with our own history (often in a way that deals in erasure rather than truth telling). I’m thinking about this also on a technological scale, specifically in terms of the media that we use to talk about and understand place.
The ways in which settlers move through this country are too often done without care, sensitivity or willingness to interrogate that movement. Tourism feeds off this sort of problematic image-making I’ve touched on and refuses acknowledgement of any kind of ongoing genocide (to do so would be bad for the brand).
TM: How are you finding the rigorous approach required for “Some Days”? Will you be spent once the project concludes?
MP: To be honest I am really struggling with it at the moment, not so much having to add to it every day, but that it’s public. Part of the initial point of the work was that I did want to play with this idea of endurance, and tap into some things I was thinking through about ‘work’ more broadly. I also just wanted to see if I was capable of actually doing it. But now there’s this struggle that’s going on where it’s like, having to add to the work each day in a way that feels ‘complete’ is kind of feeding ideas of capitalism and ‘progress’ that I actually wanted to subvert. Where I was generally adding at least a line each day, and breaking the work up into months, I’ve started trying to free up the work a bit, it’s become more notational and scrappier, more process like I guess. But that’s also incredibly exposing, to allow people to see your work in that state of process.
I’m trying to push against the capitalist impulse for progress, for ‘completeness’, I don’t want neoliberal ideals to infect the way I approach my own work. It’s sort of trying to use the tools of the state against them, in saying yes, I want rigour and I want work but I want it on my terms, through poetry, I want to ‘progress’, but my idea of ‘progress’ is not your idea of ‘progress.’ That’s not to say I don’t want the work to be finished and to be happy with what it is when it is ‘finished’, but it’s also my way of saying we are all always learning, always in a state of becoming, never finished.
I like the ephemerality of the work, the idea that the whole work could change (or even be entirely erased) at a moment’s notice, that someone could engage with the work halfway through and view it as ‘complete’ even if it’s in a total state of disarray, that there’s a sort of battle for agency between reader and writer, or that one reader can have an entirely different experience with the poem than another reader, these are all attempts to engage in temporality that the technological structure of a Google doc allows for in a very specific and unique way.
I’ve found it an interesting to engage with the way my own practice works. Poetry for me is really a place of working things through/out, I don’t think going into a poem with a fixed idea of what you want to say is necessarily always a good thing, sure you know that in part, in that you might have a set of ideas you want to explore, but to be able to let the poem take hold and let it go where it wants is one of the things I love about poetry. In part, it’s a bit of a homage to that. Sometimes poetry feels very visceral to me, by which I mean the poem speaks and your body just writes it and then you have to figure out what’s happened post-writing, like a way of engaging with your own subconscious. That’s a process that’s quite uncertain and unnerving at times, so to make that public, before I’ve even figured out what’s happening, is kind of fraught for me. That my relationship with the work is quite tender, and is always mutating, is quite fitting because on one level the work is also about friendship. The original idea for the work came out of wanting to respond to an artist friend, Sierra McManus, who did a drawing for me every day of 2017.
My ego sometimes has to block out the idea that anyone can look at it at any point; there is often bad writing up there, and to now have sections exist as notes or thoughts before they ‘become poetic’, so to speak, is also alarming. Obviously, I have to remind myself though that all of this is part of the point, that it’s a performance of ‘writerly-ness’ and also ‘readerly-ness.’
To make something like a Google doc feel like an intimate space is something I’m also trying to tap into, that the digital is tender and produces affect, that devices produce feeling. There are often moments where I’ll go to add to the document and there are other users logged on, which on one level feels voyeuristic and violating, and on another provides comfort, these are paradoxes we’re brushing up against all the time in digital spaces.
I’m sure I may have entirely different feelings and give a totally different explanation of the work once it’s done, which I guess is kind of exciting.
TM: I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?
MP: Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, which I’ve been really looking forward to for a long time. I just finished Hunger by Knut Hamsun, published in 1890, set in Norway about an impoverished writer who essentially goes mad with hunger. I was depressed about being broke and trying to juggle work and writing and a friend leant it to me, in retrospect maybe a cruel joke.
I’ve read some great Tony Birch essays lately about ghost towns, he’s talking about the ways in which we historicise pioneer towns, and memorialise landscape to exclude Indigenous histories, particularly in Western Victoria, one called ‘Death is Forgotten in Victory: Landscapes and Narrative Emptiness’, and another in an old issue of Meanjin called ‘Come See The Giant Koala’, both of which I loved.
Poets on my bedside table at the moment are Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell, Pam Brown and Lionel Fogarty. I’m a very unfocused reader, and writer actually, especially when it comes to poetry. I can’t really read or write one thing at a time, from start to finish. It’s too much. Poetry is too intense for that and my brain is too messy.
There’s an interview with Melinda Bufton on Poetry Says in which she talks about her poetry reading style as creating mix tapes, reading a few poetry titles at once and not reading linearly, which is something I also do and find to be quite a joyful reading practice for the strange connections you often find.
TM: Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything, outside of “Some Days”, that you can tell us about?
MP: I’m writing an essay at the moment about dingoes and more broadly image-making and kitsch in Australia, which I’ve touched on a bit in this interview. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and talking about writing since writing In Some Ways Dingo. One reason I’m looking forward to the end of Some Days is so that I can direct poetic attention elsewhere, as I’ve found it hard to write other poems at the same time. I want to write a collection about water that I have a few poems for but am very much still figuring out. I want to set part of it in a fictionalised hybrid of Old Jindabyne and Old Adaminaby, two towns that were drowned in the construction of the Snowy Hyrdo Electric Scheme. In my head right now it appears as a sort of feminist utopia (though utopia isn’t quite right) that I want to use to interrogate the mythmaking that occurs in memorialising Australian townships, as well as the way colonisation and genocide extend into futurism and utopia-building (see ‘Coded Devices’ by Maddee Clark).
“Some Days” (title subject to change) is a year length poetry performance piece hosted by SOd .and can be accessed here http://staleobjectsdepress.tumblr.com/
TONY MESSENGER is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal and Burning House Press. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker. He is on Twitter @messy_tony.
Hao Jingfang (born 1984) is a Chinese science fiction (SF) writer, essayist and economist residing in Beijing. An economics researcher by day, she is a talented and prolific author who writes in the early morning. Her fiction has appeared in English in SF magazines Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny. In 2016, her novelette, “Folding Beijing”, won the Hugo Award, the second translated Chinese SF work to have won that honour; the first being Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. “Folding Beijing” was a finalist for the most prestigious Chinese SF award, Chinese Xingyun (Nebula). The story will be adapted into a movie, directed by Korean American screenwriter Josh Kim. Jingfang is the author of two full-length novels, Born in 1984 (2016) and Stray Sky (2016), a book of cultural essays, Europe in Time (2012); and several short story collections, AI: Mirror of Man (2017), To Go the Distance (2016), The Depth of Loneliness (2016), and Star Travellers (2011). She is also the founder of WePlan, a public education project aimed at preparing China’s younger generation for the era of artificial intelligence. This interview focuses on Folding Beijing while shedding insights on the diversified terrain of Chinese SF in general.
Emily Zong (EZ): Some readers’ online comments maintain that “Folding Beijing” is not “SF” enough. They claim that the story’s strong allusion to contemporary Chinese political and economic reality deviates from a more classical understanding of speculative fiction as a genre of scientific hypotheses and futuristic technologies. What is your response to such comments?
Hao Jingfang (HJF): There have always been characterisations of hard SF that focus more on science and technology, and social or soft SF that primarily imagines life and social scenarios in the future. Take the American SF writer and the translator of “Folding Beijing”, Ken Liu, for example, he has written a number of acclaimed works on family life and office life. So of course, social SF has its significance in inspiring people’s vision of future life and social relations. Any type of SF writing, as long as it is able to impart fantasy and open up future possibilities, is valuable. Also, different readers have different tastes. It is impossible to meet everyone’s needs. Some people find hard SF intriguing, while others find it challenging to turn a second page. This is a matter of readers’ tastes. If some part of the audience enjoy my fiction and feel touched by it, I will be very pleased.
EZ: Chinese SF is a burgeoning field within the contemporary Chinese literary scene. With you and Liu Cixin winning the Hugo Award, Chinese SF has also attracted a great deal of international attention. Now one of the provocative questions under discussion is what makes Chinese SF unique. What do you think makes Chinese SF Chinese?
HJF: For me it mainly depends on the setting and the protagonist. If a story takes place in China, it is already a very Chinese story. I think that for a lot of people, upon hearing that this is a SF story that is set in China, they would immediately feel a sense of discordance. It is easy to associate SF with Western countries, Marvel Heroes, and white characters, but how could a SF story occur in China? If a story allows us to overcome this sense of disbelief and discordance, it would count as an excellent piece of Chinese SF. As long as the fictional events happen naturally within a Chinese setting and among Chinese characters, it would immerse readers in aspects of Chinese culture, even without the writer’s intentional assertion of Chinese elements.
EZ: When SF was introduced to China from the West in the early 20th Century, it was equated with “modified modernity” and used as a vehicle for scientific enlightenment. This ideological and pragmatic tradition lasted until the 1990s when, with the emergence of a new generation of SF writers such as Liu Cixin, Han Song, Wang Jinkang, and yourself, Chinese SF started to manifest a more diversified vigour. Nevertheless, Han Song comments that Chinese SF is “a sponge soaked in politics” and “a diagram of Chinese mainstream culture.” “Folding Beijing” bears on a range of imminent social concerns in China from class inequality to abandoning female babies. Is this political and nationalist approach a distinct feature of contemporary Chinese SF?
HJF: I think a distinct feature of contemporary Chinese SF is diversity, which resists politicisation. Chinese SF writers tend to engage with a broader range of thematic concerns than national and political themes. If Chinese SF has a colour, it is usually grey or black, rather than Chinese red. Chinese SF is a heterogeneous field where writers have variegated styles. With an exception of Wang Jinkang whose fiction is more political, writers such as Han Song, He Xi, Bao Shu, Chen Qiufan, Jiang Bo and so on, place more emphasis on individual writing practices and artistic expression than social trends. A fair number of Chinese SF writers provide readers with glimpses of the present Chinese society, especially young people’s daily anxieties and the social issues that penetrate people’s quotidian lives. But this does not mean that these works are necessarily political.
“Folding Beijing” is not representative of Chinese SF. Actually, it is quite an exception in how it places an emphasis on Chinese social reality compared to most Chinese SF.
EZ: What do you think of the international acclaim of “Folding Beijing”?
HJF: Many people read and evaluate “Folding Beijing” in political terms, which is not what I intend it to be. It is my hope to have conversations with readers who approach the story as a piece of literary writing and readers who are intrigued by the scientific hypotheses embedded in my stories.
EZ: Is “Folding Beijing” representative of your work?
HJF: I would say, no. “Folding Beijing”, and my novel, Stray Sky, are exceptions among my own works that explore social issues. “Folding Beijing” does not represent my style. Most of my fiction centers upon the existence of human beings, including boundaries between reality and fiction, the ways that individuals perceive their existence and psyche, as well as the ways that human beings relate to the universe. My next novel, for instance, is going to interrogate how people relate to each other and the connection and conflicts among civilizations. I am more inclined to create fictional settings that diverge from the real world we live in and delve into the philosophical propositions underneath people’s outlook and beliefs.
EZ: That is interesting. Considering that “Folding Beijing” won the Hugo Award, some readers and critics may learn about you and your work from this novelette alone. Also, when reading cross-culturally, audiences in the Western market may focus on distinguishing identifiable Chinese embodiments and “authentic” experiences as more significant than the existential or universal concerns in these works. It is not fair to give Chinese SF the “political” label.
HJF: Reading politically is too narrow a perspective. For example, in my work readers should compare at least ten or twenty stories before arriving at an understanding of the overall style. Chinese SF is more heterogeneous and there are not many stories like “Folding Beijing” that reflects on Chinese social structures. Han Song engages with social issues in his novels, but his angle is more specific, such as probing into the institution of a hospital. Other Chinese SF presents a constellation of thematic and stylistic practices. Bao Shu, for instance, writes seven novels on the topic of time and time travel. Another writer, He Xi, has written a novel called Liu Dao Zhong Sheng, or Six Plane Rebirth, in which his characters travel across six parallel dimensions in order to save the world. The well-known Chinese SF novel, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, portrays shared challenges faced by the future of humanity. These novels address universal concerns for a common humanity that transcends politics and nations; such as the future of mankind, human-universe relationship, and human civilisations. We cannot pigeonhole Chinese SF into a political category. Moreover, the current era of China is full of diversity, fierce competition and unprecedented opportunities, which is conducive to the development of miscellaneous literary engagements. In such a context, Chinese SF is filled with multiplicity and potential.
EZ: The ending of “Folding Beijing” is heart-wrenchingly peaceful and ironic. As Lao Dao returns to his position as a waste worker in the Third Space, his border crossing does not offer a cathartic sense of social reorganization. As the novel describes, “If he could see some things clearly but was still powerless to change them, what good did that do?” The revelation seems to rest upon keeping “the Change” itself. I wonder why did you not write some imaginative solution to change the enforced class stratification or the individual’s subordination to the collective?
HJF: I tend not to write simplified solutions in novels. Can a single hero overthrowing the world solve a deep-seated social problem? It is way too naïve and downplays the hardships and pains we undergo in real life. Sometimes SF has dystopian endings. The literariness of a story does not depend upon its resemblance of reality, such that we have to pursue justice and dismantle injustice. Some types of fictional writing give people a sense of relief and elation, while other types make people see the cruelty of reality from a sharper angle. My works belong to the latter.
The theory behind “Folding Beijing” is the quantum physics system Hamiltonian, or the collective energy of a system. If we take the megacity of Beijing as a system, the three Spaces in “Folding Beijing” can be used to write the Hamilton equation. However, when the system energy reaches its maximum or a stabilised state, the energy distribution across the three Spaces is extremely unequal. That is to say, the ultimate expansion of a megacity will eventually bring upon polarisation of population and class division, which is represented in “Folding Beijing.” This is the natural development of the system, on top of which human beings can make changes. Human intervention may reinforce class stratification by exploiting the poor, or mitigate the status quo by attending to the poor, but there will never be complete equality. What we can concentrate on is increasing fair opportunities for all.
EZ: Speaking of fair opportunities, the affective choices of characters in “Folding Beijing” are confined by their allocated social enclaves. Lao Dao’s mission is to deliver a love letter from Qin Tian in the Second Space to Yi Yan in the First Space. However, after discovering that Yi Yan is already married and considering his own economic situation, Lao Dao accepts more money from Yi Yan without exposing her lies. Yi Yan’s distorted martial values disclose the demand of marrying someone of an equal status. Within such a highly relegated social system, where do we place elements that cannot be rationalised, such as people’s affectivity and morality? For me, Lao Dao’s savior, Lao Ge, embodies the mobility and empathy that defies imposed class distinctions.
HJF: For each character in the story, when it comes to making choices, they make a compromise between a righteous choice and a utilitarian one. If someone is under economic constraints, then he/she would probably make a similar decision to Lao Dao’s. Lao Dao’s choice does not concern justice or morality, because it is complicated to make a judgment about the love relationship between Yi Yan and Qin Tian. As a bystander, Lao Dao does not want to intervene. It is hard to tell right or wrong when it comes to love. Indeed, individuals’ affective choices are subject to various external influences. Everyone has a selfish side, but also a compassionate side. It is human nature to extend help and empathy to those in need. Qin Tian or Yi Yan would also assist others when the situation permits it. The problem is that, most of the time, when their own interests are threatened, the vast majority of people would choose self-protection. There is always hope and kindness in society but kindness alone is never enough. In many cases, our societal rules undermine people’s willingness or courage to exercise empathy so much so that benevolent behaviors do not guarantee good results. If reaching out to Lao Dao threatens his own job, Lao Ge would probably restrain from sympathising with him in the story.
EZ: You have plans to expand “Folding Beijing” into a full-length novel. Will Lao Dao unite other waste workers and revolt against their subjugation?
HJF: I am going to write a novel with “Folding Beijing” being the preface. The writing is scheduled from August 2018 to April 2019. When the majority of the population supports the current social structure, they feel that it is actually fair to give in a little in order to enjoy the benefits that society provides. As such the sustainability of social structures premises upon some people thriving from the sacrifice of others, so it is unlikely for any revolt or rebellion to happen. No. I will not finish the novel with any simple resolution such as a protest. It has to be much more poignant than that.
EZ: Let’s talk about time and space. The 2017 Shanghai book fair is themed “Map and Territory: The World of SF.” The use of “map” and “territory” here is a deliberate gesture to rethink SF beyond a linear model of futuristic literature, and in terms of the imaginative exploration of possible space and transformations that time can provoke. Given that there is so much emphasis on temporal elements in SF, such as technological progress and utopian/dystopian futures, how do you usually approach the time-space dynamic in your writing?
HJF: My understanding of time-space relationship is concurrent with the mainstream view within the science community, namely, time and space is limited but interrelated, and the laws of the universe determine our temporal-spatial thinking. Both time and space is very important to my writing. SF is not to mystify science. In my fiction, scientific or technological progress is not the essence, but the vehicle through which we explore borders of knowledge and possibilities of the future and the unknown. Sometimes our imagination of the future also prompts us to look to the present and reflect upon or rewrite the past. That said, a basic requirement of SF is its scientific accuracy. I can hypothesise on the basis of current scientific discoveries and inventions, but I will not wrap a story with fantasies or hypotheses that are discredited by science. For example, a number of novels in the Chinese book market theme around “chuan yue,” or time travel, in ways that are not backed up with any scientific logic. SF of this kind is not my thing.
EZ: “Folding Beijing” engages with dystopian topics. What attracts you to write dystopian SF?
HJF: I am not a dystopian writer and do not want to be defined as one.
EZ: In “Folding Beijing,” there are many arresting details and a good command of literary and conversational language, which makes it an excellent story that combines SF and traditional literature. In what ways can SF benefit from traditional literary writing?
HJF: I have never drawn a line between SF and traditional literature. Compared to traditional literature, SF creation has more freedom in terms of settings and plots, but SF needs to respect the narrative styles of traditional literature. SF can learn from traditional literature in terms of the excavation of human nature, the setting up of conflicts and suspense in the story, in-depth portrayal of human psychology and conversations, the artistic and aesthetic modifications of mainstream literature, etc. As for stylistic tactics, it depends upon the preferences of individual authors. The criteria against which we judge a classical novel also apply to SF, including the vividness of characters, the completeness of a story, and the strength of thematic expressions, and so on. By these criteria, I do not mean specific rhetorical strategies, such as how to depict a moon, which constitutes only the surface of a novel. I mean the in-depth aesthetic properties that are embodied in a novel’s theme, structure, and characterisation. These properties are what a SF writer needs to learn from traditional literary writing.
EZ: From your experience, what challenges does Chinese science fiction face?
HJF: My understanding is that there is still a lack of classical, groundbreaking works in Chinese SF. The main distribution platform for Chinese SF is magazines, and even though there are now some online columns and WeChat public accounts that start to publish SF, these channels are suitable for publishing short-length stories. There is an insufficient number of full-length novels such as Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. On top of this is the declining readership that does not respond favorably to some SF novels, even those full-length novels written by Han Song and Jiang Bo. The market for genre fiction is thus quite specific and narrow. It then becomes very challenging for new writers to get published or assert a place. Other ways of motivating the market can help, such as successful film adaptations. Personally, I think it would be helpful if publishers and the media could promote more SF works and present more SF writers to the public audience. The development of SF in China is certainly a slow and gradual process.
EZ: A pertinent issue “Folding Beijing” engages with is the relationship between humans and machines. How is this addressed in your new short story collection, AI: The Mirror of Man?
HJF: The six short stories in my new book all touch on human nature. The era of artificial intelligence enables us to gain a better understanding of human nature. In the process of configuring the differences between human beings and artificial intelligence, and the different methods of thinking between humans and machines, we can acquire a deeper knowledge of ourselves. This process allows us to detect and cherish those precious qualities within humanity that have been neglected, such as compassion and empathy for others, self-awareness, free will, interpersonal communications, and so on and so forth. We often see these qualities in children’s curious eyes and their sincerity.
EZ: Thank you Jingfang, for your valuable insights into “Folding Beijing” and Chinese SF.
Emily Yu Zong has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Queensland, where she remains an honorary research fellow. Her doctoral thesis on Asian Australian and Asian American women writers was awarded the 2016 UQ Dean’s Award for Outstanding Higher Degree by Research Theses. Her research interests include ethnic Asian literature, gender and sexuality, and literature and the environment. She has published academic articles, interviews, and book reviews in Journal of Intercultural Studies, JASAL, New Scholar, Mascara Literary Review, and Australian Women’s Book Review.
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka, where she lived until she was fourteen. She went to university in Melbourne and Paris, and now lives in Sydney. As well as Springtime, she has published four novels. Her new novel, The Life to Come, will be published in 2017.
Sydney in spring is a palette of luminous intensity. Fresh green spaces meet vivid blue skies. Lilac jacarandas burst into life throughout the city and its suburbs. It is time of renewal when locals and tourists take full advantage of this most favoured of seasons. It is a curious setting for a gothic tale, albeit the location for Michelle de Kretser’s latest work, Springtime: A Ghost Story. Bringing light to darkness this ‘black-spring’ interview with Michelle de Kretser questions Australian literary and cultural customs and environmental stereotypes. It also probes literary fashions, short form fiction, the Melbourne / Sydney cultural divide, gothic tropes, and the psychology of space. Through her discussion with interviewer Alix Watkins, de Kretser reflects on her interest in haunting, the influence of her Sri Lankan background, and the attraction of brevity following her previous epic Questions of Travel (Miles Franklin Award 2012).
AW: What inspired the writing of Springtime: a ghost story? It’s your first novella. Why did you choose this short fiction form as opposed to writing a novel, the fictional form which you’re most known for?
M de K: It was partly just sheer exhaustion! My last novel, Questions of Travel (2012), was so long, and the worlds of its characters, Ravi and Laura, were so different that it was almost like writing two novels. Whereas a novella, it’s shorter, it takes less time. But I should qualify this, as I do like long short stories. I’m not a fan of micro-fictions or flash fictions—and some of my favourite writers write long short stories—so I guess I just wanted to do something different—to write in this different form and I really enjoyed it. It’s shorter. It’s more compressed. So you don’t deal with things in a leisurely way. You get to the point quickly. Also, I like fiction that doesn’t spell everything out, stories that leave blanks for the reader to fill in. I tried to do that in Questions of Travel too, but by virtue of its being a very long novel there was a lot that had to be described in great detail. Like the set up of the guidebook publishing company, for instance. So one of the advantages of the short fiction form is that it forces you to leave a lot out, which then forces the reader to supply more from their own imagination. So it’s good to leave things out. Someone, I think it was Jean Rhys, said that “there’s no writing problem that can’t be solved by cutting”. I’m not sure that cutting solves all narrative problems, but it can solve a lot of them.
AW: It’s been said that we write what we read? Do you read a lot of short fiction yourself?
M de K: I read a reasonable amount. Often people write both novels and short stories, so if I like a writer, I’ll probably read whatever they have written whether it’s long or short form. I follow writers rather than forms. I have read most of Alice Munro, for instance. I think Patrick White’s short stories are genius, so are his novels. There’s Penelope Fitzgerald and Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose short fiction is very good. And Jane Gardam and Elizabeth Taylor, the real one! Another very good collection—an unusual collection of stories—that came out last year, was Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals.
I’m actually going to be teaching a creative writing masterclass in New Zealand next month, and in this class we will be examining some short form fiction. I’m taking a Canadian story along. It’s a really wonderful story called ‘The Deep’, by a writer called Mary Swan, and it’s pretty long. I’m interested to hear the students’ response to the length of it, among other things.
AW: How would you describe the culture of short fiction in Australia? Is it an established and respected medium?
M de K: I think it’s well established. It’s been around for a very long time, think back to Lawson, for instance. It’s been around in Australia since the 19th Century! But these things are cyclical, there are fashions in literature, like fashions in everything else. Short fiction, I think, was out of fashion for while, through the 1990s and into the 21st Century. But it’s making a come back; it’s being published a little more now. And by mainstream publishers, although it’s still not as popular as long form fiction. And I’m told that the sales of short story collections generally don’t compare with the sales of novels. But then, it’s prizes that boost sales—and prizes tend to go to novels rather than to collections of short stories. Still, I think those Best Australian Stories collections, the ones by Black Inc., they’re pushing the form forward. And Black Inc. must be doing okay, sales-wise, to keep bringing them out.
AW: Can you tell me about the significance of place in your work? How is Sydney different to Melbourne for Frances, the protagonist in Springtime?
M de K: Frances is someone who experiences Sydney as being asthetically and visually different from Melbourne. It seems to lack a certain sophistication and intellectual stimulation that Melbourne offered her. Also, she finds the heat and the light in Sydney somewhat oppressive. But at the same time there is the pull of new love in Sydney, her new man, and the new life they have started there, and then there are the sensual pleasures that Sydney itself provides. In Melbourne, Frances found it too cold to swim in the sea, for instance, but in Sydney she goes swimming. So Sydney is a place of sensual pleasure for Frances.
AW: Is cityspace a character in this novel?
M de K: I hope so but I think not more so than in Questions of Travel, which also describes Sydney and a range of places. I always like writing about place, and I always like reading about place. I like novels that vividly evoke the particularities of a city. I hope that this is the case for Sydney when it’s featured in my work, as well as for other places, like Naples, for instance, which is described in Questions of Travel.
AW: Your work suggests that cultural identity is affected by the character of a city. Do you believe this to be so? Are Melbournians serious and erudite and Sydneysiders sunny?
M de K: I think Sydneysiders are much more serious than Melbournians give them credit for. But place, obviously—Sydney and Melbourne aside, as maybe they’re not so different—but the place where you grow up, it affects everything about your life. Where you are born, the country where you are born: it will effect how long you live, it will effect whether your children are likely to survive infancy, it will effect what they and you will die of. It will effect what your income will be, where you will live, and how you will live. Geography, it’s a really important factor for determining human history.
AW: How does fashion define your protagonist?
M de K: That was just me having fun because I often despair if I’m trying to buy clothes in Sydney. All the clothes here seem to be for an eighteen year old who is going to a party. I still don’t know where to shop in Sydney. I still haven’t found anywhere really good. There is definitely, and you see it if you spend any amount of time here, there’s a certain fashion aethetic that is different from Melbourne. It has to do with climate, really. Melbourne is a place where you wear black to the beach, and Sydney is all golden tans and very skimpy bathers. And Frances, my protagonist, she’s an art historian. She’s a very visual person so she registers these kinds of things. Also, I would say that Frances, although she doesn’t acknowledge it, is obviously deeply uncertain about her new relationship. And some of those anxieties and dissatisfactions are projected onto Sydney—and the intensity of its sun—rather than acknowedged as coming from that relationship.
AW: Interior space provides intrigue in your fiction. What are your thoughts on the respective functions of interior space and exterior space in fiction, and particularly in your own work? Lightness vs. darkness and shadows, etc.
M de K: I’m very interested in domestic space and interior space, because it seems like a extension of psychology. People like to create interior spaces that are a reflection of themselves, and this intrigues me. I like reading descriptions of houses in fiction, and I love walking down the street when people have their windows lit up and their curtains not drawn, as in these moments you get glimpses of other lives… I’m basically a voyeur, as all novelists are. I’m always hoping to get a glimpse into other people’s worlds.
When we were looking for our house in Sydney it was a surreal experience. We’d lived in our last place, in Melbourne, for nineteen years, so the previous time we were house-hunting it was before the internet…and dinosaurs roamed the earth, you know. So it was my first experience of house-hunting with the internet and it was just amazing and fascinating to me that you could look into real people’s houses without ever having to leave your desk, well I was riveted by these real estate sites, and how people self-present through them: through the colours they choose, the furnishing they choose, and the way they decorate their homes. Also, one of the strange things that I noticed, at that time, in those real estate site photos, was that there was never a book in sight. Never! Books are clearly considered clutter, and undesirable.
AW: What is the significance of interior and exterior space for the characters in your fiction and character psychologies?
M de K: I suppose traditionally Bachelard, for instance, would say that a house is a refuge, a sanctury, but one that can also become a trap. If you think of Questions of Travel, Theo’s house in that novel is both a refuge and a trap for him, and he eventually dies in the trap. As for exterior space, it’s unpredictable. You can’t control it in the same way as an interior, which is, I suppose, why people are attracted to gardening. It’s about ordering that exterior space and containing it and keeping it safe. But also, I’m a walker myself, so I always send my characters out walking, which is a way of discovering cities, of getting to know places, and it’s exciting to discover things that way. At the same time, exterior space is always a potential source of danger in the way that an interior space usually isn’t. In the case of Springtime, there are things about the inside of the house which become very uncomfortable for Frances at times, especially when Charlie’s son comes to stay and she needs to get out and to escape from the house. Also, Frances is a rather anxious person and this is projected onto everthing around her, including her domestic space, which is not one that she would necessarily have chosen for herself. She has to make do with what they can afford in Sydney, which is far more expensive than Melbourne. It all comes down to economics in the end.
AW: I’m interested in your writing process. Where did Springtime begin? Was it with an image, an idea, or a character?
M de K: It began with the ending. My books always begin with the ending; this time it was the idea of someone seeing a ghost, which turns out to be something else. I walk along the river in Sydney with my dog, and there’s a house along where I walk which has a manequin that’s dressed up in the garden. It’s now been moved closer to the fence, and you can see quite clearly that it’s a manequin. But when I first moved to Sydney it was set much further back in the garden, which was spooky. In fact, I once saw someone fall off her bike in fright, when she saw it in the early morning light. So that figure was a starting point as well.
AW: Is Springtime aligned with the Australian gothic genre?
M de K: When I think about the term ‘Australian Gothic’, I think about writers like Marcus Clarke, and The Term of His Natural Life, which is about convicts and violence. I also think of newer writing that’s set in the past in Australia. Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is an example of the latter, as is Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party or Courtney Collins’s The Burial. Australia, the modern nation I mean, was born of violence, so it’s natural for writers to look to history when they want to explore the local version of the gothic. Springtime, however, is set in the present. I also tend to associate the “the gothic” with certain traditional locations, and with winter and darkness; for me Melbourne is a kind of gothic place because it’s wintry and cold. But Sydney is quite different. It’s relentlessly sunny and springlike here for much of the year, which is why I chose it as my setting. I deliberately wanted to write a ghost story that subverted gothic conventions, by situating it in this very unhaunted Australian city. Now that’s a very simplistic view of Sydney, obviously, but, nevertheless, I wanted to write this story that takes place in broad daylight on a sunny morning, in the last place where a ghost story would normally be set.
AW: Yet your story, it’s set in a garden, and gardens are traditionally mysterious and spooky, no? This garden, it definitely invokes a gothic tradition.
M de K: I do write about the garden in the book as being dark and full of leaves and mysterious, and I suppose the figure that the protagonist sees there, of a very pale female figure in an old-fashioned dress does correspond to gothic conventions. But at the same time, these sightings don’t take place in a spooky churchyard. It’s not a dark and stormy night, and there are no ruins in sight. On the contrary, Frances sees her ghostly figure on sunny Sydney mornings. And although the garden is dark and mysterious, her surroundings are not. There are people around. There is sunlight. And then there’s way the story ends; it’s very open ended. In a traditional ghost shory, something is resolved: the ghost is either exorcised or the ghost kills the protagonist. Whereas in Springtime you think the ghost has been exorcised when the protagonist discovers that she was just a manequin – I mean when Frances goes into the house where she’s seen the mysterious woman and realises that what she thought was a ghost is completely explicable and of this world. Sybil, the manequin, it has no spooky life. But then, just when you think you’re safe, there’s the last surprise, about the dog, which leaves the narrative open-ended. How could it be that Frances saw a dog that the woman from this house tells her is dead? Is the woman lying? Why would she bother? Did Frances see a different dog, which was alive, but which looked like the dog in the picture in that house? You don’t know. And I don’t, either!
So I’d say that I’m playing with this genre—the gothic tradition—in the same way that I played with the whodunit in The Hamilton Case. As a writer, I like to draw on aspects of genre but subvert them at the same time. And subverting the ghost story was sheer pleasure.
AW: What role do ghosts and haunting play in your work past and present?
M de K: In a metaphoric sense, a book is always haunted. It’s haunted by other books. But I’m sure there have been ‘real’ ghosts in my work, too, as I’m very interested in haunting. I’m interested in the idea that people or places are haunted, not necessarily in the literal sense, but in the sense that they are never free of their past. People carry traces of their past with them, they carry traces of what has happened to them there. Also, I’m interested in history, and haunting is a kind of metaphor for that. And then there was my growing up in Sri Lanka where ghost stories were, and probably still are, everyday narrative acts, really. People used to tell ghost stories often, and there were also always beliefs such as a cemetery after dark being a haunted place. Also, we—my family—holidayed in houses that were supposed to be haunted and which had stories attached to them. These were old historic houses. So haunting, I think, was a part of Sri Lankan culture then in a way that it’s not part of Western culture. And I suppose that the same can be said of other non-Western cultures. At a book talk I did recently, a friend of mine was involved in the audience discussion. She was talking about living in Indonesia and how ghosts are just an accepted part of Indonesian culture—even amongst its Western-educated intellectuals. So, I suppose, there’s space for that in non-Western cultures in a way that there isn’t in the West. The West focuses on reason and on the Enlightenment and modernity. And modernity has no place for ghosts, so a ghost in modernity, if it appears, it usually represents the return of the repressed, which is the past. You can see this in Springtime, for instance, through Frances’s fear of Charlie’s past. She would like to break with that past—his child and ex-wife—but she can’t, she can’t free herself of that history. So what she sees in the garden is perhaps an external expression of that.
AW: What is your favourite ghost story? And are there allusions to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in this novella, to his representation of children and dogs as uncanny characters?
I do think that The Turn of the Screw is an utterly amazing and wonderful story, I would say that is my favourite example of the ghost story genre. You just don’t know whether the governess is mad, whether she’s making everything up, or whether she is actually seeing the ghosts of the servants who have died and who have now taken possession of the children. So, I guess that’s my favourite ghost story, because of its ambiguity and because of its narrative richness, and because it really changed the way people thought about ghost stories. But I intentionally didn’t reread it when writing this novella. So as for allusions to children and dogs as uncanny characters… those elements may well be in there, if you’ve seen them, but, if so, they’ve been taken over unconsciously.
As mentioned before, I’m going to be teaching a story soon called ‘The Deep’, so I reread it recently in preparation. I thought I remembered what the story was about. I remembered that it’s about twins, twin sisters. But what I find when I reread this story is that yes, it’s about twin sisters, but that these twin sisters have two older brothers who try to kill the twin sisters, or at least, so we think, as when the girls are little they are found almost drowned in a fountain.
AW: Goodness, that’s taking me back to the start of the Questions of Travel…
M de K: Of course, and Laura has older brothers who are twins who try to kill her by drowning her, but I just had no idea, no idea, of the similarity at the time I was writing my book. Obviously there’s a link there, but I hadn’t reread ‘The Deep’ while writing Questions of Travel and if I had I would have been completely inhibited about using those elements. But this is the thing about fiction, it makes an impression on you, it leaves a kind of sedimentation in your brain, that later, much later, rises to the surface in disguised forms, and that’s clearly what happened with ‘The Deep’ and Questions of Travel, and it may have also happened with The Turn of the Screw and Springtime, as you’ve suggested.
ALEXANDRA WATKINS lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has a PhD from Deakin University, where she has taught and researched in literary studies and creative writing since 2004. She specializes in postcolonial and diasporic literatures, as well as literature for children and young adults. Her book Problematic Identities in Women’s Fiction of the Sri Lankan Diaspora (2015) is published by Brill. She has featured on the Radio National Subcontinental Bookclub show, in which she discussed Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel.
‘I Have to Recuperate Love, and Grow it Back’—An Interview with Merlinda Bobis
Merlinda Bobis is an award-winning author and performer of four novels, five poetry books, a short story collection, seven performance works, and a monograph on creative research. She was born in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at University of Wollongong. She writes across multiple languages and cultures and her works are notable for their transnational expansiveness. Her first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) was short-listed for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and her novel Fish-Hair Woman (2012) won a 2014 Philippine National Book Award. She is also the winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award, the Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories, and the Philippine Balagtas Award (a lifetime award) for her poetry and fiction. This interview focuses on her fourth novel Locust Girl. A Love Song (Spinifex) launched in July 2015, with occasional reference to her third novel Fish-Hair Woman.
Emily Yu Zong (EZ): Locust Girl really challenges my expectations, especially if we consider your previous works. I mean, usually we get the impression of a combination of your Filipino sensibility with a focus on the Australian readership. Most of your works are set in the Philippines, including the first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) and the second novel The Solemn Lantern Maker (2008) Fish-Hair Woman (2012) and White Turtle (1999) are set across the Philippines and Australia. But this one stands out distinctly and appeals to a wider audience in the world. Can you share with us the inspirations for this book? And what motivated you to jump out of that trapping/productive dialectic of Filipino/Australian to write this novel?
Merlinda Bobis (MB): When I write, and I think when anyone writes, it is towards a story in search of a form and a location, while responding to one’s own location in the world. I write about what worries me. Australian playwright Katherine Thomson says that we write about what we worry about. I started writing Locust Girl in 2004, when George Bush declared his global ‘War on Terror,’ and I worried no end. How do you respond to this worry? Back then the question was, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ The border was so clear-cut. I felt the air we were breathing was full of fear, hate, and the judgment of the other—anyone who is not like us, those who are outside of our border. I am talking here about anyone’s positioning from whatever side of a border, whatever politics. We have created very entrenched borders because of this fear of the other. This judgment of the other is made by all sides of the border about their own other in terms of race, culture, or gender. So to respond to this worry, as a writer, I could not just remain in my Filipino-Australian imaginary. I had to break out of it and dream globally. When you think about territory globally, you often think in terms of borders: physical borders, cultural borders, and political borders, etc. In this case, we are all thinking about (or worrying about) geopolitics externally. But my main worry in 2004, and what I was more afraid of, was the border within that cuts the heart. At the height of Bush’s global war on terror, we were worrying about that external explosion—but what about the internal corrosion or even implosion? We were so engrossed in looking out at the other that we forgot the internal impact of the fear, hatred, and the judgment of the other that we nurtured within. I thought that we had developed an ‘inner dry,’ which then became the main landscape of Locust Girl: the desert. This became the terrain of the human heart: dry, without water. And this is what should truly terrify us. In Fish-Hair Woman, there are these lines that evoke something similar: ‘In a while, dryness will slip into malice, where it will feel at home, because there is never any moisture in malice. Malice is always deprived.’ This dryness in the human heart is the state of lovelessness, an inner death, no vegetation—we become as dry as kindling, thus the possible implosion and self-destruction. But how do you respond to this worry, or one might say, this existential terror? Well, as a writer I have to recuperate love, and grow it back, and make it the major premise of this book. I have to write the outer and inner borders, and to interrogate both. But at the same time, I don’t want this framework to point to a specific culture, because this is what we’ve already done to the planet—we have made its geography, its resources, its worries/problems/blames so culturally/racially specific, when, in fact, all of these are shared, and must be shared for our survival as a species. So the novel is open to all cultures and differences, while also illuminating/interrogating our fixation on differences. This means I cannot be culturally specific. I have to set the novel in an allegorical place; I have to create a mythical space. So the story can be owned by anybody, even the names. I invented the names, from A to Z. There is no specific clue to the setting. The whole point is that this story is about all of us. I have to write outside of my culture/s, I have to imagine something that accommodates all: the heroes, the villains, the victims, the perpetrators. But everything (love-and-the plague) is shared. Everyone is us.
EZ: Does this mean you would rather be known as a writer, instead of a ‘Filipino-Australian’ or ‘Asian-Australian’ writer?
MB: Well, even if I write this ‘global vision,’ the imaginary that drives it still originates from the Philippines, because I came to Australia when I was 31 and my sensibility was fully formed then. I write my memories (both stories and modes of storytelling), and wherever I go, I carry them. When I write, it feels like I’m going home. Writing is a literary homecoming. When I was writing Fish-Hair Woman, I’d close my eyes and would be back instantly in my grandmother’s house—which incidentally became the ancestral house of the novel’s protagonist. I think that even if I write about other things or places, this is the base, my Filipino sensibility: my ‘ancestral house.’ Even in Locust Girl, even in this mythical space, its ‘once upon a time’ mode of storytelling is, I believe, evocative of how my grandparents used to tell stories. Until now, I still introduce myself as a Filipino-Australian writer, because of that pull of the ancestral home. It’s like gravity, it pulls you back—but I will not be trapped by it. I can do other things; dream up other spaces. The world is bigger than one’s culture!
EZ: This gives rise to cognitive transformations in the readers too. When we interpret Asian-Australian literature, we are forced to go beyond this dialectic: Asia/Australia.
MB: Exactly. I don’t want you to think of the work or of me in binary terms. Of course, I could be as guilty of this dialectic, but I can also break out of it and hopefully be as multiple as anyone else. I don’t want to be trapped in the framework ‘Asia/Australia’ or ‘Filipino/Australia.’ Sometimes I find I am also trapping myself in binaries—because if you’re producing that binary all the time, you have a problem. I think Locust Girl attempts to address this problem. But the premise of Locust Girl is already embedded in Fish-Hair Woman, a transnational novel that escapes the trap by crossing cultures and professing a reciprocal love between cultures. Locust Girl goes further, though. In fact, here, I am questioning that reciprocal act (or expectation) of love: must love be reciprocal, for it to be love? In all my books, even in my poetry, there is a continuum of thinking and questioning of myself as well. The following book could be an argument against the previous book. For instance, in Fish-Hair Woman, I set up the idea of accommodating both self and other: ‘… how much can the heart accommodate? Only four chambers, but with infinite space like memory, where there is room even for those whom we do not love.’ This is echoed in Locust Girl, which adds reciprocity to the accommodation, but in the end, I argue against the expectation of reciprocity. You won’t give me water, even if I’m dying of thirst, because I can’t pay for it—but I have no resources to pay for it! Or you won’t give me water because you believe I haven’t cared for it according to your idea of caring—but isn’t that the same water that you siphoned from our wells a long time ago? Reciprocity is more complex than simple give and take. These are some of the questions and arguments in Locust Girl. So this is what I mean by continuum: you could build upon an idea/theme/vision in a previous book, or you could argue against it, or you could do both—because you keep learning new ways of knowing, thinking through, and articulating the world, as you ‘grow up’ as a storyteller.
EZ: Considering the book’s allegorical frame, would you call Locust Girl a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel about the global challenges of our age?
MB: It is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel set in this futuristic nightmare, but not without hope. However, it is also very much about the present times. It is about the colonisation and control of resources, sometimes in the pretext of preserving them—but who are you preserving them for? Who are you conserving the earth for—only for your people? These realities of colonisation (and globalisation) have been happening through the ages. In the novel you have ‘the familiar’ Minister of Mouth and Minister of Legs—what are they doing here? They are controlling resources and the movements of peoples, and preventing them from crossing the border to the last green haven on earth. Then you have the Minister of Arms, the defence force. You have these Ministers controlling the seeds, the oil, and the water. They’re making sure that the earth’s last resources are preserved only for the elite, ‘the Kingdom builders.’ It’s happening now. Yes, Locust Girl is post-apocalyptic, but what I am saying is that we are already experiencing the post-apocalyptic. The post-apocalyptic is already in us. It is part of our reality now.
EZ: By depicting another take on our society, our culture, and the world, do you think fiction can influence people in ways that politics and newspaper headlines cannot do in our times?
MB: I am not the ‘art for art’s sake’ type, or someone that privileges text above all things. What I really believe in, paraphrasing novelist Alexis Wright, is the seeing-and-acting. You cannot divorce the two. In fact, for me, apprehending and acting form an organic whole. I believe in feeling-thinking-doing. You can’t just feel and think and do nothing. Writing is a doing process. When I read, I like books that make me actively do something. I remember being in a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival, and we were talking about war and trauma in literature, and there was this question from the audience (I’m paraphrasing this from memory): We’ve been talking and telling stories about these for a long time, but humanity never learns. We keep repeating history, so do these literature still matter? My answer was: When you read a book that affects you, if the next day you are a little kinder to your wife or your husband, or your neighbour, that is something. It is action, even if it’s small. Something happened within the reader, so something concrete happens from and outside the reader—because of that story. And I wish that this happens for all ages. These days, when I write I really want to write something that an adult and a child can ‘get,’ in their respective ways. I want a twelve-year-old and a fifty-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl, albeit in different ways. I want a twelve-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl as a fairytale about friendship between two girls lost in this strange desert, and somehow learn about love and the other. And I want the fifty- or the ninety-year old to be able to go beyond the fairytale and appreciate the novel as political allegory. I like writing layered texts. The style and aesthetics of Fish-Hair Woman are complex, it’s densely layered and a difficult read—but with Locust Girl, while also layered, I wanted even a child to ‘hear’ the simple storytelling, the singing. I’d like you to hear it when you read, and to listen to the musicality of this lovesong, because the novel is indeed my lovesong to the reader. I am not a composer, but the songs of Locust Girl just came as I wrote. I even sing them now.
EZ: The novel reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, particularly on the parts of authoritarian rules. In the Orwellian authoritarian rule, there is ‘thoughtcrime,’ but here you carry that further to ‘singingcrime.’ Were these Orwellian texts paratextual points of reference for Locust Girl?
MB: I haven’t read 1984, a shameful confession, but I read Animal Farm a long time ago. After finishing Locust Girl, I thought people would read it as Orwellian. If there is anything I borrowed from Orwell, it’s the idea of the ‘political fairytale’ or ‘political fable.’ In fact, I also describe Locust Girl as a political fairytale/fable in its use of allegory and the fantastical in narrating the political exigencies of our times. But I do not want to describe my novel as Orwellian, because this is such a masculine brand. I think Locust Girl does something else. It’s mythical and proudly wears the ‘once upon a time’ tone, and its protagonists are two girls. Initially I was a bit worried that the novel won’t be taken seriously by Australian critics, as it’s too strange compared to what’s being published here. Then my publisher Susan Hawthorne assured me that Locust Girl reminds her of a number of South American and European (with links to Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian tradition) novels written by women. She mentioned some names: Cristina Peri Rossi, Luisa Valenzuela, Marta Traba, Claribel Alegria. I’m comforted that I’m not alone, and that I’m in a good company of women! I hope critics/readers do not just reference the masculine model, the Orwellian tradition, when they read Locust Girl.
EZ: Again our imagination is pushed to the fore here. In Fish-Hair Woman there is Estrella with her twelve-metre-long, ever-growing hair that functions as a tool for salvation. In Locust Girl, there is a locust buried in the brow of the protagonist Amedea. It is ‘a sensing compass’ that copies sounds, reveals interior landscapes, but also at times betrays her, mocks her, and argues with her. How to make of the locust? Does it allude to our human ego, or the ability to love that we don’t know about ourselves, in the sense that we all have a locust in our forehead, waiting to be released?
MB: We are afraid of the song of the locust, because the moment the farmers hear it, we know we’ll suffer the plague and then, possibly, hunger. But I am subverting this locust stereotype. The songs of the locust in Locust Girl are the compass helping us find water, find our journey out of devastation, find each other, find love, and find redemption. But it’s also a warning. We all have a locust (both plague and redemption) inside us, and it is trapped, snug and hidden. Amedea’s singing locust gets buried in her brow, after the bombing of her village, but the realisation comes in the end that, in fact, we all have it: small, snug, and hidden. I think of the locust as the doubleness of humanity. We have a capacity for the plague and destruction that we do to the environment and to each other, but we also have the capacity for love and the capacity to redeem ourselves and our environment. We are all a plague to each other, but we are also each other’s lovers and beloved. That’s why the locust sings to Amedea, gives her hope, but also mocks her. It’s an alter ego, yes, but then the real point, as the locust sings, is this:
What greater plague is there
Than what we do to each other
What greater love is there
Than what we do for each other (175)
It’s this doubleness that matters. Remember, as far as Amedea’s hungry village is concerned, the locust is no longer disgusting or a source of fear, but a source of protein when their food rations from the Kingdoms never arrive. This employment of a subverted/subversive image is similar to what I have done in Fish-Hair Woman: when people go through trauma, their hair grows grey overnight or they lose their hair, but I subverted this expectation. Instead of losing her hair, the opposite happens to the protagonist Estrella: her hair grows longer.
EZ: Furthering this point, when you start writing, how do you employ the aesthetic tools of magic realism and the uncanny?
MB: The word ‘magic realism’ was initially coined by the German art critic Franz Roh. In Latin America, they call it ‘lo real maravilloso,’ ‘the marvelous real’ conceptualised and developed by French-Russian Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. It’s a literary genre that’s often related to the uncanny, which has also been theorised in literary studies. But in the Philippines, we’ve had the tradition of magic realism since pre-colonial times, long before it became a literary genre. We have beliefs in which the magical and the real are one, organically explaining daily life. And we have always known the uncanny and believed it. As a writer, I am informed by my Filipino traditions of magical realism and the uncanny, but I am living and writing in the West now, and I am also equipped with Western aesthetics to write for my Western audience. So I can play with magical realism and the uncanny as aesthetic tools familiar to the West, using both as a means to create metaphor and allegory that engender political critique and subversion, and, let’s not forget, the layered story that produces literary delight and magic. However, I think what drives the creative urge to put something on paper the moment I visualise and imagine it, is very much the magical and the uncanny from my first home. Everything originates from that tradition: the seamless connection among cultural beliefs, environment, and daily life.
EZ: Is the singing in Locust Girl also related to the Filipino tradition of singing, weeping, and telling stories?
MB: Where does the singing come from? Again, it comes from my own culture, because we sing stories. Even if I am writing about another place, the story grows out of the pull of gravity: the pull of the ancestral home, which I mentioned earlier. The orality of the telling is very much a Filipino tradition. My early works of poetry in Australia, particularly Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon, the epic poem that I did for my doctorate, is also performance. I’ve performed it in various countries as a one-woman show, as I’ve performed River, River, my one-woman play adaptation of Fish-Hair Woman. You see, even if I’m working with text for the page, I’m already singing it in my head, in my body. It is easy for me to chant it, to sing it, because it is inevitably returning to the tradition that my body and my sensibility know. The musicality of Locust Girl also returns to that storytelling-singing tradition. I remember that when my grandparents told stories, they took on an almost singsong tone, with a particular rhythm: ‘Kaidtong enot na panahon—Once upon a time . . . ’
EZ: Are the magical and the uncanny also part of the ‘survival mechanism’ of the people of a particular locality?
MB: In fact, that’s what I touched on in Fish-Hair Woman. When you are in the village of Iraya during a Total War, a village locked in with no resources, no food supply, and the river (the main source of water), is contaminated by corpses, what helps you survive? The beliefs in the magical, the uncanny, the salvation of the dead, and the redemption of the living. You believe you can have a ‘fish-hair woman’ to save you. Every culture, including Western cultures, have or used to have their own magical-survival beliefs. But we are becoming enslaved by rationalism. We have just shrugged off these survival beliefs and we have created a rational and distinct border between the magical and the real worlds. I remember being told by a publisher (to whom I was pitching Locust Girl initially) that they’re not interested in the novel because they publish literature about ‘the real world.’ What is the real world, and who defines/demarcates realness? Remember, there are many things that we still don’t understand about the earth, the planet/s, our brain, and our bodies. How are indigenous people’s beliefs explained through theory? Not possible; you just believe, and this very belief helps you survive natural catastrophes that no science, technology or the rational brain can hold back, even if they can explain most of these phenomena though not all of them, not completely or perfectly. The magical and the uncanny are sources of strength that we can draw from. And also, how boring would the world be if we’re reduced to this: I believe this is a table because there is a corporeal table before me, and I can see and touch it!
EZ: Let’s talk about the ending of the novel. I almost hoped there would be a revolt to overthrow the pseudo-democratic rule of the Kingdoms. But in the end, Locust Girl is consumed and burnt by the combustion of multiple voices inside her, the weight of multiplicity and history. She acts out that giving of love. How does that ending work, considering that redemption is a consistent theme in your fiction?
MB: Yes, the weight of multiplicity is such a burden. Amedea, the Locust Girl, literally implodes and is destroyed when she starts accommodating all the voices inside her, singing all of them. It is true that the accommodation of the other/s is difficult, even a burden, and entails self-sacrifice. Somehow the self cedes power as it accommodates the other/s. So, accommodating all, Locust Girl implodes. She has had a choice, and she could have denied that option of multiplicity, but instead she accommodates all voices. Because she wants to show everyone that regardless of borders, we are all in this together—in this love-and-plague or redemption-destruction of our world, or what we have reduced it to. But everyone around her in the Five Kingdoms is in search of a culprit, someone (an other) to blame, in order to save the self. And in a moment of doubleness (again), Locust Girl takes on the burden of both culprit and lover. She wants to save, an urge that is born of love. Hers is the greatest sacrifice: self-immolation. She accommodates everyone and she implodes. This time, the negative premise of implosion (because of the ‘inner dry’) at the beginning is turned on its head: it becomes the ultimate act of love. And from the ashes, she rises: both phoenix and female Christ. I think I have subconsciously employed the Christian ideal love called Agape. Agape is selfless and unconditional love, and is very much about the other. Agape is Christ’s love for humanity when he dies on the cross. It sounds ideal (or ‘magical’ for the doubting, hard-core realists?), but considering the fact that we manage to dream about it, the fact that we have an idea for it and have worded it—agape—then it is possible. In times of conflict, people do heroic things and they totally forget themselves to save, to extend compassion and to redeem the other. If we have the capacity to talk about Agape, we can possess part of it. In fact, we have it and we have to set it free. It should not remain small, snug, and hidden.
EZ: I am very interested in the character of Beenabe with whom I actually identify more than with Amedea. She achieves the awakening of love in the end, but she is also torn by hesitation and mixed allegiances. Can you talk about her as well?
MB: The protagonist Amedea is the transcendent one, but Beenabe is more like the rest of us, the ordinary. She is more real, and she is vain. There is her vanity, human frailty, jealousy, and the rejection of her friend Amedea’s monstrosity. But there are also moments when she rips off her own clothes to clothe Amedea. Beenabe is more like us. We have the burden of ambivalence and mixed loyalties. We get confused because we are always looking after Number One, and how we can remain Number One. Human beings are selfish and vain, but we also have the capacity to love, and love deeply. But ‘Love is clumsy, because it has so many hands’—Beenabe’s love is clumsy, because she has to deal with many exigencies for her own survival. Her love is not the Agape kind. She has become a trafficked sex worker in the Kingdoms, and she is there to service. But she says it’s love and that she is loved—she needs to trick herself into believing this in order to survive. She says she has crossed the border and has become a Kingdom builder, already accepted by the elite, but very clearly the Ministers declare that she is and will always be an outsider. But within this enslavement, she tries to muster some dignity, some humanity, and she does—but her love is clumsy. And can we fault her for this? Love is clumsy: such is our burden as human beings, whether or not we are in a difficult circumstance like Beenabe. Our love is clumsy, so we trick ourselves into believing that we are better than this, better than who we are, and sometimes, we do become better. Remember, we have a locust in our respective hearts or brows, this love-and-plague capacity—and while we plague each other and our earth, sometimes we surprise ourselves in moments of transcendence when we suddenly forget the self for the sake of the other. And we soar!
EZ: Thank you Merlinda, for sharing with us your creative ethics and the powerful songs of Locust Girl.
Emily Yu Zong is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication and Arts, the University of Queensland. She works on diasporic Asian women’s literatures and the transnational critique. She has published academic essays and book reviews on diasporic Asian identity, hybridity, female agency, and cosmopolitanism.
Laurel Fantauzzo is a writer and teacher. Much of her work finds her studying appetite, identity, the signals for real love, and the search for home. She is largely a nonfiction writer and an essayist, but she also writes young adult fiction. Laurel Fantauzzo was born in Southern California to a Filipina mother and an Italian-American father.
Laurel Fantauzzo on identity, writing, and finding a way through.
Born in Southern California to a Filipina mother and an Italian-American father, Laurel Fantauzzo has called Brooklyn, Manila and Iowa City home. Currently, she lives in Singapore and teaches literature and creative writing at Yale-NUS.
Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Manila Review, and Esquire Philippines to name a few. She earned a 2011 Fulbright research scholarship, a 2012 Iowa Arts Fellowship, and a 2013 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature. Her unpublished non-fiction manuscript, The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film, and Death in the Philippines, is an investigation into the unsolved deaths of two young film critics, and she is currently at work on a memoir.
There is an undercurrent to Laurel’s work that is hard to define. An acknowledgement of the complexities of the emotional and social worlds she finds herself in, a consideration of the intrinsic nature of social and political discourse and the everyday, and an intelligence that would make approaching her in an interview context potentially intimidating. But in person, Laurel is a lot like her writing: generous, sharp, and affecting.
Harriet: Do you consider your work to be political?
Harriet: Can you define the political nature of your work? Would you consider it to be political in terms of critiquing the broad, social structures of society or in terms of it subscribing to the second-wave feminist concept of ‘the personal is political’?
Laurel: Again: yes. Ha!
But it’s true! When it comes to writing, I don’t necessarily believe in the application of “either/ or.” I avoid dichotomies, because if dichotomies were broadly applied, I, a hybrid person, would not exist! And (today, anyway), I rather like existing.
I do critique the broad social structures of society, and I do it through my documentation of small, personal gestures. Where do we feel oppression most intimately? I’d argue that we feel it the most in quiet interactions, where we assume ourselves to be safe, and / or innocent. A writer whose work I follow, Elaine Castillo, paraphrased Frantz Fanon when she told me we should examine our privileges with as much passion as we examine our oppressions. I’m interested in examining how we both suffer from, and perpetuate, damaging social structures in our day-to-day decisions. It’s a weighty examination, but I think it’s important to be conscious.
Harriet: You write often of being an outsider in your motherland, the Philippines, but particularly in the beautiful essay ‘Under My Invisible Umbrella’, you discuss the complexities of being white-skinned in a brown land. Would you consider the ability to espouse politics to be a position of privilege? And how do you negotiate that within your work?
Laurel: Yes, it is a position of privilege. I was born in Southern California and speak American English. Growing up with a frequently frustrated Filipina mother and a Filipina grandmother with limited English, I became somewhat fluent in code-switching, subtly changing my reactions and language around groups of Filipinos versus groups of white Americans. The language I know best, English, is the world’s favored linguistic currency of business and power. My pallid complexion is still associated with high beauty standards. I try to name the relevant, unearned advantages I hold as the writer and narrator. But I am sure I make errors, fail, and carry blind spots of my own.
A friend teased me for feeling annoyed at pale foreigners who come to the Philippines, often men who drone on and on to Filipinos with their so-called outsider expertise. “But you’re white!” she said, and laughed. Yes, in the Philippines, I am considered white; in the US, my race is a question mark, and in Romania I was asked if I was from China or Japan. I said to my friend, “Don’t worry. I have plenty of contempt for myself as well.” It’s a difficult balance, in nonfiction: making confident assertions while carrying a modicum of humility and a sense of humor. I try.
Harriet: As is the case in your essay ‘The Animals in My Home’, there is a real weaving of your life in the Philippines with your past in the United States, including your use of Tagalog words mixed in with the English. Is this “code-switching” between cultures something that you find challenging to translate into your non-fiction? At a craft level, was it ever something that you had to reconcile? Or in your opinion, is the written word a space you feel most allows for a fluidity of identity?
Laurel: No, it’s not challenging. It’s just my life.
I never had to reconcile any of my cultural subjects on a craft level. I mostly had to reconcile with myself on a psychological level before I was able to write the stories I have inside me. I felt apologetic and sheepish about identifying as Filipina and claiming the Philippines as a home. Now I am more inclined to embrace my sense of unbelonging. I’ve let go of the idea that any one country or any one label will ever offer me a complete sense of home, much less a complete sense of self. The hyphen is where I live.
Harriet: That is a really beautiful answer. I’d be interested to know however how much you feel that you draw from your environment. Outside the usual progression with your craft, do you think your writing has changed since your move to the Philippines?
Laurel: Yes. In the US I was laboring under the unspoken assumption that my ultimate audience would be white Americans who have very little patience for hybrid people and stories from abroad. Whether or not it was ultimately true, or just my own fears, I think this assumption weighed on me, making me feel a bit hopeless and constrained about the worth of my work. In the Philippines I was somehow able to realign my conscious and unconscious priorities and free my voice. In both graduate school and from Manila, I was also fortunate to work with supportive teachers and editors.
Speaking of privilege, the cost of living in the Philippines, while unjustly burdensome to the vast majority Filipino citizens, is also unjustly easier for persons from abroad. So whereas in the US, I would have had to have several roommates and jobs to support myself as a teacher and a writer, I was able to have my own apartment in Metro Manila and even a cat. The space of my own was, and remains, important.
Harriet: Which is sort of a tricky emotional space to inhabit at times I’d imagine. Do you feel a sense of conflict between your privileged “white” background and your less privileged “non-white” backgrounds? As a writer who is conscious of exposing social oppression and differences, do you feel it difficult to reconcile your own lifestyle in comparison to those around you, and does this complicate your writing process?
Laurel: This line of questioning gives me a tension headache!
Harriet: Oh no! Sorry about that! The summary of your thesis/ first non-fiction, full-length manuscript The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film, and Death in the Philippines describes it as your “attempt at literature as a form of justice”. How far do you see literature can go towards obtaining justice and “writing” wrongs?
Laurel: I think literature can be both a first and last resort. In a society where justice and the truth are elusive, accurate storytelling can be nothing less than an act of revolution. But the kind of revolution that leads to repair, not more violence. That is my hope at least.
Harriet: That’s my hope also. It would be lovely to finish on a lighter note. Can you talk a little about what is exciting you at the moment?
Laurel: You can leave in my response about the tension headache! But I’ll return to your earlier question now.
In a world that requires binaries and absolutes, those of us with mixed identities are often looked at with assumptions that do not have room for our realities. As the scholar Alex Orquiza says, it is very dangerous and usually a mistake to use absolute terms when discussing identity. I suppose that’s what makes me wince; the premise of your question. I feel it assumes that as a mixed race, mixed culture person, I transform in manipulative ways. That I am inevitably the perpetual traitor and outsider in whatever space I occupy. There is a trope in popular 20th century fiction that mixed race people are inevitably tragic, not able to fit anywhere. I don’t think I’m particularly tragic. Most days I simply am. Or try to be.
I suppose you’re right, though. Clearly I do feel a sense of conflict! But unresolvable conflicts can be healthy for essayists, even if they cause pain and frustration.
As for what’s exciting me at the moment: fresh squash blossoms, sold curbside, roasted with cheese in my little toaster oven. My cat, asleep with her face in the palm of my hand. The Legend of Korra, with its sense of humor, strong female physicality, scenes of terror and post-traumatic stress disorder, and its development of a sweet, genuine lesbian love story at its apex.
That about covers it!
You can read Laurel’s wonderful essay, ‘How To Survive A Super Typhoon’ here.
Harriet McKnight currently lives in Melbourne. In 2014, she was shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Her work has been published in The Lifted Brow and The Suburban Review digital editions and she has worked since 2013 as the deputy editor of The Canary Press.
Writer, Ali Cobby Eckermann was born in 1963 at Brighton, Adelaide, on Kaurna Country, however, she grew up on Ngadjuri Country. She has travelled extensively, living most of her life on Arrernte, Jawoyn and Larrakia country in the Northern Territory. When she was 34, Eckermann met her birth mother Audrey, and learnt that her birth mob were the Yankunytjatjara people from north-west South Australia. Her mother was born near Ooldea, south of Maralinga on Kokatha Country. Eckermann relates herself to the Kokatha mob too (Ali Cobby Eckermann 2013). Her first verse novel is His Father’s Eyes, and her second verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, won the Kuril Dhagun Indigenous Writing Fellowship, which is part of the black&write! Indigenous Editing and Writing Project sponsored by the State Library of Queensland. Ali has won several awards including: First Prize in ATSI Survival Poetry competition in 2006, First Prize Dymocks Red Earth Poetry Award NT in 2008, and was Highly Commended for the Marion Eldridge Award in 2009. Her poetry has been translated and published in Croatia, Indonesia, Greece and New Zealand. Ruby Moonlight was published in 2012 by Magabala Books, and won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and was awarded the “Book of the Year” at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2013. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a Nunga poet, is the second Aboriginal writer to win the top prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, in consecutive years. Ali Cobby Eckermann’s important works include:
little bit long time APC, 2009
little bit long time reprinted by Picaro Press, 2010
Kami Vagabond Press, 2011
His Fathers Eyes Oxford University Press, 2011.
A Handful of Sand: Words To The Frontline co-edited with Lionel Fogarty Southerly Journal 2011
Ruby Moonlight Magabala Books, 2012 Deadly Award Outstanding Achievement in Literature
Love Dreaming & Other Poems Vagabond Press, 2012
Too Afraid To Cry Ilura Press, 2013
JS: Could we start with you telling us a little about your childhood, schooling and tertiary education?
ACE: My childhood may sound unusual but it was a regular childhood for many Aboriginal children born in the 1960’s. I was adopted as a baby by the Eckermann family and grew up on a farm in the mid-north of South Australia. Mum and Dad couldn’t have their own children, so adopted the four of us kids. It was a good life: baby lambs and chickens, kittens, the cubby house, gardens and orchards, and the iconic tennis court!
Our family was German Lutheran so we grew a passionate respect for good food and the sharing of it. Collectively our family was self-sustaining, We had a dairy, milked cows every morning and every night. So as children we learnt the practise of hard work. At a young age we learnt to grow sweetcorn, watermelon and tomatoes. My parents were kind people, and I remember their generosity to others. But it was the social arena outside the family group that I found confronting. Even at a young age I remember racism; I did feel that I did not really belong here. Of course this became more evident in my teenage years, at high school, when I met other Aboriginal students, some adopted and some with their families. I had no concept then of the extent of the Stolen Generations in Australia.
JS: You have a strong need to educate and also give a voice to those, who for whatever reasons (lack of education, poverty, marginalisation), cannot get their stories told. Do you know of any specific reasons you care about this why you care so much about this?
ACE: Mostly I feel I have this obligation to myself. In hindsight I grieve the fact that when I was a teenager, and life became very difficult, I can’t remember anyone asking me if I was okay. As an angry young person I did not know how to voice my emotions, and as a result I succumbed to the adoption of my only son. This led to many years of addiction. And it was years later during rehabilitation, that I began to recognise the value of every story, and how to value my own. These skills were reinforced after finding my family, especially by the Aboriginal Elders. It is a true value of my culture, to care for others.
JS: What are the traditions of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lionel Fogarty?
ACE: Actually, Lionel Fogarty is one of my best friends. He has been an incredible mentor to me, in my early years, as an up and coming writer. I find his writings powerful; much of what he wrote 35 years ago is relevant today. I was somewhat sad to find Oodgeroo Noonuccal at a mature age; I regret that I did not learn about her poetry whilst in school. Sally Morgan’s My Place was the only book of Aboriginal writing that I discovered and read in my young years.
JS: Who are Nunga?
ACE: Nunga is a collective term for Aboriginal people who live in South Australia. In Queensland the term is Murri, in other states the term is Koori. My traditional family in the desert are known as Anangu.
JS: How are they different from other Aboriginal communities in Australia?
ACE: I believe, in respect to Aboriginal literature, there is a collective spirit. As Aboriginal writers we need to truly support each other, and support each other to mentor the craft. Each writer will identify by their Language Group name, and may casually refer to the collective terms. Mostly I identify as a Yankunytjatjara writer, and most of my poetry is influenced by the natural landscape of my people.
JS: Who are some of the important contemporary Indigenous writers ?
ACE: Lionel Fogarty is one of Australia’s most important writers. He first published his poetry as a young man in his 20’s. The journey of his life has been shared through his poetry, and is a truly honest gift to the world. Kim Scott and Alexis Wright have both won the Miles Franklin Award, the most prestigious literature award in Australia.
A Facebook site BlackWordsAustLit is the best resource of Indigenous Literature in Australia. It is both an archive and an introduction to our newest writers. Check it out and follow the prompts.
JS: How many Indigenous authors write in English?
ACE: Most Aboriginal authors and poets write in English. I believe the publishing world requires this, for the selling of our books. It is also a legacy of the removal of so many of us from our family. And the cost of translation in Aboriginal language is very expensive. I feel sometimes the cost is the preventative, and of course we are not empowered to change this. On the other hand the resurgence of Aboriginal language, at a community level, is truly inspirational. Many families and young people are relearning these ancient languages; our mother tongue.
JS: Tell us about the Stolen Generation?
ACE: My mother was separated from her mother at the age of seven. This is very confusing for her, as the mission where they lived had a Children’s Home, to prevent the removal of children. It seems my mother was an amazing student, and it was deemed that continued association with her family would be detrimental to her education. She told me that she would watch from the window as her siblings went with Kami and other family members to hunt for lizards and other bush tuckers. She told me she felt sad. And this is one of the main legacy’s of Stolen Generation removal, the sadness that still exists inside us.
I was 33 when I found my mother. At the time she was the Co-Chair for National Sorry Day, an annual day of remembrance and celebration dedicated to the Stolen Generations. Her legacy in life is amazing.
JS: Many of your poems start with “ooooo’. What does this mean?
ACE: This was an error, a typo. The title of these poems is clear. I did get a shock when I saw the publication of this. Now it remains as a mystery for the readers.
JS: What are your important themes of writings?
ACE: I would hope all my writings achieve my basic goals; to promote healing and understanding between Aboriginal people and the rest of the world. As I travel internationally I often hear how media has portrayed us incorrectly, that our rights have been returned to us, how past issues have been resolved. This is not the truth!
I do enjoy meeting writers from other cultural backgrounds. Mostly our issues are similar, and often we share a similar expressionism. This has an empowering effect on me. I love reading global poetry.
JS: Could you please mention a few poems which represent you as a Nunga writer?
ACE: Circles & Squares, First Time, Love Dreaming, Ribbons, Wallaroo
JS: You have written verse novels. What stories do they tell?
ACE: My first novel His Fathers Eyes was commissioned to explain the Stolen Generations to upper primary and lower secondary students. It is published by Oxford University Press in the series Yarning Strong. My second verse novel Ruby Moonlight is a story of massacre, the often unmentioned history of colonial impact. It tells the story of Ruby, who survives the massacre of her entire family. I set this story in the 1890’s. I was moved beyond words in 2012 to receive the Deadly Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature (an Aboriginal Award) and again in 2013 when Ruby Moonlight won the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize and the NSW Premiers Book Of The Year. This book should be in every school library.
JS: You have already attended translation workshops in India. What is your experience? Do you think that translation works are close to text/original?
ACE: The experience of the Autumn School for Literature Translations is an amazing experience. The passion of the selected students is paramount to the success of this. I was immersed into wonderful conversations; I shared many photos of my family and traditional lands. We discussed every detail. And my heart told me during the final recitals that the students had achieved the best translations of my work.
The unforeseen publication of my poems by the Deptartment of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University is a testament to this. Some of my poems will sit with two or three translations. I am proud that the student’s names and their work will accompany my words. I believe this will become a unique handbook of international translation, due to this shared experience.
JS: What do you hope your work will achieve?
ACE: I write in the hope that my grandchildren will be safe in their true identity in Australia. I write that they will not have to assimilate or change any cultural aspect of themselves to achieve what they want. I write in the hope that Australia will become more mature, to embrace the values that only diversity can bring, to be kinder to the impoverished and the poor, and to stop pretending that these issues do not exist within the national identity.
JS: Are you familiar with Indian Dalit writers?
ACE: In 2012 the University of Western Sydney hosted a two-day festival for Australian and Indian writers. Alexis Wright and I were invited to open panel discussions with two Dalit writers who had travelled from India for this event. It will remain a highlight of my writing career. The panel was judged one of the highlights of the festival.
The opportunity to return to Kolkata, to travel to New Delhi and attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015 will allow me to meet with Dalit Writers again.
JS: Can you describe an “average” working day for you?
ACE: I day dream a lot! Much thought goes into my writing, long before it reaches the page. And some time ago I quit my regular job and returned to visual arts; I love sculpture and painting. I find these two artforms compliment my artistic process. My visual arts actually funds my writing career. So my life is frugal and exciting. There is no ‘average’ day.
JS: If you were to prepare an anthology for school students would you include some of your own poems?
ACE: Of course. Our literature is necessary to inform that our culture still exists, beyond tourism. I would also include oral readings of Aboriginal poetry by Aboriginal poets. I believe our voices bring a beautiful timbre and rhythm of our words, which is both healing and powerful.
JS: Do you believe in Literary Movements? What are its weapons?
ACE: I guess my ‘literary movement’ is the establishment of my Aboriginal Writers Retreat. It is an environment for all writers, however it is Aboriginal themed. Every participant must ‘leave their ego on the highway’ and arrive to a place of equality. This is how we learn. I have enjoyed sharing my space, and watching the outcomes in people. Lionel Fogarty was my first Writer-In-Residence and we co-edited Words To The Frontline: an edition of Southerly, Australia’s premier literary magazine.
Originally I established the retreat in my home at Koolunga, in South Australia. However my personal career has grown beyond my wildest dreams. So I am now in process of mobilising the retreat, and am looking for sponsorship to purchase a caravan. The caravan will be customised to include a workspace and include an extensive library of Indigenous literature. Many grassroots Aboriginal writers have not been exposed to multi-cultural writings. Sometimes there is no literature of any kind in their home environments.
It is my wish now, to travel to communities and transport my workshops there. I believe the main benefit will be tri-generational story-telling and writing workshops.
JS: What are your current engagements?
ACE: Currently I am in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in America. It is a three month residency and is funded by the US Deptartment of State. The program has been running since 1967 and has allowed Iowa City to become the only UNESCO City Of Literature in America.
JS: Would you please share a recent poem with us?
my mother is a granite
boulder I can no longer climb
nor walk around
her weight is a constant
reminder of myself
I sit in her shadow
gulls nestle in her hair
their shadows her epitaph
a pebble of her in my pocket
* Ngingali is Ali’s mother’s traditional name
JS: Thank you! You are an amazing source of inspiration.
Jaydeep Sarangi, is a bilingual writer, academic, editor, translator, and the author of a number of significant publications on Postcolonial issues, Indian Writing in English and Australian Literature in reputed journals/magazines in India and abroad. He has recently collaborated as peer reviewer for CLR, Universitat Jaume I, Spain. He is one of the Editors, “Writers Editors Critics” and the Vice President of literary organization, GIEWEC (head office at Kerala). Widely travelled and anthologised both as a poet and a critic, Dr Sarangi has delivered keynote addresses in several national and international seminars, conferences and read poems/research papers in several continents. He is Associate Professor in the Department. of English, Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College (Calcutta University), 30, Prince Anwar Shah Road, Kolkata-700033, WB, India. E mail: email@example.com