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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stuart Barnes is a Tasmanian-born, Queensland-based poet and the poetry editor of Tincture Journal and Verity La. In 2014 he was named Runner-up in the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and co-judged the ACT Publishing Awards’ poetry category. An anthology of poetry, with Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, is forthcoming from Regime Books. Twitter @StuartABarnes
MH: Who is the poet who has most inspired you, and why?
SB: At my 30th birthday party a friend gave me a Brunswick Street Bookstore voucher, which I redeemed for Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (and Mervyn Peake’s The Gormenghast Trilogy, which inspired Faith, one of my favourite records by The Cure). Collected helped me navigate a particularly intense depression. In Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Lowell writes: “[Plath] almost makes one feel at first reading that almost all other poetry is about nothing. … [Although] I can scarcely bear to read her poems through, they are so agonized. A bit formless for my taste, too”. Interesting observations. The former I agree with; the latter rubs me the wrong way. I find Plath’s poetry and prose—Johnny Panic, Unabridged Journals, Letters Home—transformative, distinct, composed; thick with wit, drive, love, hope and well crafted last lines. These aspects continue to inspire; her life’s minutiae only insofar as they influenced her writing.
MH: What is poetry for?
SB: Pleasure. Pain relief. Enlightenment. Escape. Absolution. Past, present, future.
MH: Could you tell us a little about being an online editor? What are the pains and joys of this?
SB: I love editing poetry for Tincture Journal and Verity La, but the online environment is a double-edged sword: 24/7-accessible, yet an energy leech. More and more I dream about living off the grid, but I don’t want to relinquish what I do. To be able to read and edit others’ poetry is a privilege and a great collaboration. I often think I’m more enriched by the experience than the contributors. One of the joys, which outnumber the pains, is accepting that first work by an exceptional new writer: an unearthing of buried treasure. One of the pains is sifting incorrectly sent material; guidelines are so easy to follow.
MH: If you could live anywhere else in the world where would it be? Why so?
SB: Ancient Egypt or British East Africa. Dreams, visions, past life experiences.
MH: Could you list ten of your favourite poetry collections please…?
SB: Alphabetised: Ashes in the Air, Ali Alizadeh; Free Logic, Rachael Briggs; When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz; The Three Fates & Other Poems, Rosemary Dobson; Bone Scan, Gwen Harwood; The Striped World, Emma Jones; The Earth in the Attic, Fady Joudah; Ariel: The Restored Edition, Sylvia Plath; The Brink, Jacob Polley; Akhenaten, Dorothy Porter.
MH: What is your relationship to music?
SB: I was raised in a home where there was always the right LP for the right occasion. Before I could speak I could hum Dolly, Johnny, The Beatles. From an early age I’d set my alarm for 11 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, watch rage till just before my parents woke. I loved, equally, the new music, the guest programmers, the Top 50 Countdown. Besides befriending Gwen Harwood, hymns were the only thing I liked about church. At ten, with my own pocket money, I bought my first record: Bananarama’s WOW! An obsession with everything Stock Aitken Waterman followed. At fifteen I was introduced to The Cure, discovered a number of almost-as-brilliant UK bands: Curve, Ride, Dead Can Dance, Swervedriver, Cocteau Twins, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Jesus and Mary Chain. From America: Primus, Fugazi, Red Hot Chili Peppers. In those days triple j was a spring of astonishing alternative music; I digged, just as much, Hobart’s local mainstream stations. When I moved to Melbourne at eighteen I met a girl obsessed with Britpop and electronica. Each week, music drew us to Q&A, Smashing, Teriyaki Anarki Saki. Blur, Pulp and Suede I still listen to; FSOL, Sasha and Digweed and Laurent Garnier, too. At the turn of the second millennium, Warp Records, Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki. Gay, underground and day clubs, raves and dance parties offered up a honking skein of artists. For a number of years I played violin, guitar, piano; for several I wrote songs and sang “as badly as Robert Smith”, according to my family (I always wanted to be a writer, but I always wanted to be a rock star more: too shy; and I never could perfect that union of lyrics and melody). For a couple in the mid-noughties I DJ’ed at three Melbourne pubs. Eventually I stopped going to bars, clubs, gigs, stopped smoking, drinking and whatnot. “Our relationship will suffer!” I needn’t have worried. I became more resourceful (podcasts, SoundCloud, Shazam). Nowadays, I put on music less often, though with no less affection; I’ve learnt to enjoy the silence. Occasionally I miss the dance floor’s sweat ‘n’ bump, its tribal triumph. All music and all lyrics, particularly The Cure’s and Robert Smith’s, have influenced the big things, writing especially. Music has been pacifier and blue security blanket. Catalyst of Dionysian Mystery and screaming at the moon. Music is white flag, time machine, memory aid, stimulant, narcotic. Saint Etienne’s “I couldn’t go to Somerset on my own, so I used Top of the Pops as my World Atlas”. Magic moments (Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ at Wall Street at midnight on New Year’s Eve; The Orb’s extended live version of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ at Earthcore at dawn; Diamanda Galás’ version of The Supremes’ ‘My World Is Empty Without You’ at twilight at Hamer Hall). Music is my North, my South, my East and West. The perfect—the only—drug, best served without preconception. Causes me to dance and sing, get up and do my thing. I am as happy cranking Zappa as I am miming ABBA. Spice Girls are as vital as Billy Bragg. Not every day, but I wake, write, edit, eat, shower, daydream and fall asleep to music.
MH: You are a big writer of centos. What attracts you to them?
SB: For years I’ve marvelled at the art of mixing vinyl, which I never mastered in the DJ days. I’ve never solved a cryptic crossword; the cento, I think, is poetry’s cryptic crossword. The challenge is highly attractive; I like rules, e.g., ‘Forcento’ (Rabbit Poetry Journal #10) lifted one line from six poems about gravity, ‘Penultimates’ (Regime 05) the second-to-last line from each of Ariel: The Restored Edition’s forty poems, ‘Cinquecento’ http://cordite.org.au/poetry/notheme3/cinquecento/ one line from fifteen poems written in the sixteenth century. Also (and this realisation occurred while talking with friend and fellow writer Nigel Featherstone last year), writing a cento is my way of critically engaging with other texts without reviewing them (I enjoy reviewing, but I’m slow at writing prose).
MH: Once upon a time poetry was quite popular. If in fact it still is, what can we do to make it even more popular, without sacrificing any of its difficulties?
SB: Sacrifice its poet-difficulties: the cynics, the trolls, the ogres.
MH: Why is the word ‘poet’ slightly amusing?
SB: “I’m a poet” is almost defiant; I have to find strangers’ and acquaintances’ insensitive responses slightly amusing: “I didn’t think they still existed! Where’s your inkwell, where’s your quill, where’s your powdered wig? Your favourite poet’s Plath, eh; you love all that doom and gloom? Does poetry pay the bills? When are you going to grow up? When are you going to get a real job?” And my favourite, which Ivor Indyk mentioned in Sydney Review of Books http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/20-march-2015-ivor-indyk-on-novelists-and-poets/: “Poets just sit around for months on end, waiting for inspiration”.
MH: How does living in Central Queensland affect your writing?
SB: In my editorial for Tincture Journal Issue Nine http://tincture-journal.com/buy-a-tincture/ I wrote about the astrological implications of living so close to the Tropic of Capricorn. The proximity of rainforest and the sea and clearly seeing the Milky Way have expanded my awareness of, my sensitivity to nature’s rhythms. Rockhampton receives over three hundred days of sunshine a year, a stark contrast to Melbourne, so I’m a happier chappie, a happier writer. Moving from Victoria utterly befuddled me. When I settled, however, the past’s horrors were uncorked and in poured new influences. I started taking yoga and meditation seriously; now, I practice every day. I kind of haunted Clifton Hill from a tiny three-storey two bedroom flat; here I’ve an enormous three bedroom Queenslander with a tyre swing, mangoes, coconut palms … Recently, my first tropical cyclone; in Marcia’s aftermath, as I gape at the poincianas and the gums, I’m reminded of lines from The Cure’s ‘Shake Dog Shake’ (“I’ll tear your red hair by the roots”) and Plath’s ‘The Hanging Man’ (“By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me”). This city’s very different, still very much an inspiration.
MH: Are there any areas you feel poetry should not venture into?
MH: When are you going to put a book out?
SB: A publication, with fellow poets Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, is forthcoming from Regime Books.
MATT HETHERINGTON is a writer, music-maker, gourmet Indian chef, soccer nut, bludger, and lover based in Brisbane. His first collection of all-Japanese-related forms (and fourth poetry collection) is For Instance, published by Mulla Mulla Press. Some current inspirations are: Timbaland, Frisky Dingo, Jess, Luce, and northern sunshine. Matt’s latest published poetry can be found in a three-way collaboration with poets Ryan Van Winkle and David Stavanger here: http://ryanvanwinkle.com/projects/commiserate-2015/
Tom Cho is an artist whose fiction pieces have appeared widely. Among his 70 short fiction publications to date, he has pieces in such outlets as The Best Australian Stories series, Asia Literary Review, Meanjin and The New Quarterly. Before its release in North America and Europe, Tom’s book, Look Who’s Morphing, was originally published in Australia. It was shortlisted for three awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and is now in its second Australian printing. Tom has performed his work on the stages of many festivals, from Singapore Writers Festival to Sydney Mardi Gras. He has a PhD in Professional Writing and is currently writing a novel about the meaning of life. His website is at www.tomcho.com
MD: Your wonderful book Look Who’s Morphing (Giramondo Publishing 2009) was just republished by Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press. Can you tell us about the events leading to its publication in North America and Europe?
TC: I originally wrote Look Who’s Morphing for a world audience and while writing it, I frequently felt that it could find appreciative audiences outside of Australia. But although the Australian edition did well critically and commercially, it proved a struggle to attract any interest in the book from overseas publishers and I eventually gave up on my ambition to see the book published elsewhere. Then, in late 2012, I did an artist residency at Vermont Studio Center in the US. I had to give a reading as part of my residency and I read a piece from Look Who’s Morphing. The audience response was so positive that I decided to revive my old ambition. I was about to do some overseas travel anyway, so I decided to use my forthcoming travels in North America as an opportunity to build local interest in the book.
Well before Arsenal Pulp Press published the book, I had been gradually accruing interest in my work from outside of Australia for many years, particularly through scholarly networks in the arts and humanities. This interest increased after the Australian publication of the book. One of the scholars who had come to be a great supporter of Look Who’s Morphing was Larissa Lai, also a fiction writer and poet, who is based in Vancouver. Two of Larissa’s books were published by Arsenal Pulp Press. So, last year, when I decided to go to Canada as part of my travels, Larissa arranged a reading for me in Vancouver and brought my work to the attention of this excellent publisher.
MD: You wrote and published six issues of a zine, Sweet Valley Zine, between 2000 and 2004. For those of us who might not be very familiar with zines, can you talk a little about how you came to write SVZ, and how zine culture and your involvement with it might have shaped your subsequent work?
TC: In its early days, my career was nurtured via some great support from Australia’s youth arts sector. Probably the most pivotal example of how this support changed my practice was in 1999, when the youth arts organisation Express Media included me in a contingent of young writers that was travelling to Newcastle to attend the second National Young Writers’ Festival. This festival’s vision of writing included (and was not limited to) comics, graffiti, MCing, spoken word, blogging and zines. It was through this festival that I was first exposed to zines and came to produce my own zine, Sweet Valley Zine.
Years earlier, when I had studied creative writing at university, literature was presented to me as largely comprising fiction, poetry, non-fiction and play scripts. In that vision of literature, prose and poetry were mostly to be found in literary journals and in perfect-bound books. It was a very limited horizon for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. So it wasn’t even so much zines specifically but my experience of that entire festival in 1999 that dragged me out of my more silo-ed and purist idea of literature and helped to cultivate my cross-artform sensibilities. As a result, these days, I tend to see myself less as a writer and more as an artist whose primary practice is writing fiction. I think that kind of inter-disciplinary horizon can absolutely be seen in Look Who’s Morphing.
The zines that I most admired contained personal writing and had an explicit political orientation. This was a world away from the literary restraint that I had been drilled in as a creative writing undergraduate student. The kind of anti-didactic, impersonal restraint of “Show, don’t tell” that I’d been schooled in could never have accommodated the political rants and diaristic reflections that I found in my favourite zines. There was also collage, a staple aesthetic technique in zining that permitted a much more free-ranging and lateral use of reference and allusion than I had ever attempted in my own work at that stage of my development. Moreover, some of my favourite uses of collage in zines were those that were done for the purposes of parody. So I think zines loosened my grip as an artist in some important ways: I became less invested in an ideal of an impersonal and restrained author, and I took a more playful and, in a sense, a more promiscuous approach to textual reference.
The writing that I began to produce out of that period was not likely to attract interest from many publishers, but fortunately what I also took from the culture of zining was an interest in doing literature “otherwise” – in finding different models of disseminating writing and also in better appreciating smaller readerships where the engagement with the work often felt more personal and intimate.
MD: Many of your stories, including “Dirty Dancing” and “The Sound of Music,” re-write classic film narratives in inventive and humorous ways. How great an influence has fan fiction (including slash fiction) been on your work?
TC: There was actually a stage in the life of Look Who’s Morphing when I was asking myself if the book could itself be considered a work of fan fiction. My fiction pieces have mostly circulated in literary journals and at performances for arts festivals and other arts events. So the book is unlikely to fit a more narrow definition of “fan fiction” that rests upon participating in the kinds of critique and dissemination that exist within fanfic communities. I’ve never done any of that. Then again, we could instead drift towards a broader and more open-ended definition of “fan fiction” as involving, say, creative production by fans in response to other texts. If we do that (which is what I’m inclined to do), things get a bit more interesting. At any rate, it would be ill-advised to try to settle the matter once and for all – the whole endeavour of defining fan fiction needs to remain open to revision as new fanfics and theorisations of fanfic are produced.
There are traces of slash influences in Look Who’s Morphing (and I was also especially interested in the Mary Sue genre of fanfic while writing the book). That said, once again, I’m more inclined to drift towards a broader view. What impulses led me to incorporate a queer relationship into my response to the film “Dirty Dancing”? On one level, the answer is “an interest in slash fiction” but more broadly, the answer concerns my queer desires. It was these desires that prompted me to realise a potential for the film “Dirty Dancing” to be read and written queerly.
Incidentally, what I’ve also been thinking about lately is that all of these creative readings of books and films that I do aren’t confined to the world of texts. For example, my practice of reading queerly pertains not only to classic film narratives but also how I might read, say, the gaze of a person I might encounter on the street or at a park. What can I say? Sometimes, I have this hope that I might be able to live with as much imagination and suppleness as I try to bring to the books, films and other things that I read.
MD: Some of the stories that ended up in Look Who’s Morphing first appeared in some form in Sweet Valley Zine. Some were later published by literary journals and magazines before appearing in Look Who’s Morphing. Since the collection takes morphing as one of its main themes, I was wondering if you could comment on your writing process. How did the stories shift over their writing periods? And is this an approach that continues in your work to this day, in that you revise over a period of years?
TC: Look Who’s Morphing had a long gestation: about 9 years from its beginning to its Australian publication. And you’re right – during that time, many of the pieces materialised across various contexts: in the pages of literary journals, in my zines, at various venues as part of readings and performances that I gave, over the course of Giramondo’s editorial process, and even over the course a doctoral research process when I incorporated the book into a PhD in Professional Writing. It was a rich mix and it no doubt enriched the manuscript and it was entirely in keeping with the kind of polymorphous and poly-morphing project that Look Who’s Morphing turned out to be. Doing readings was a great way to test how the work was resonating with those whom I consider my core audiences. And one of the wonderful things about working with Prof Ivor Indyk, my publisher at Giramondo and also one of my PhD supervisors, was that he could not be so easily seduced by my popular cultural references. I remember when he saw a very early draft of the manuscript. On one of the pages for my piece “Suitmation”, he asked: “Who is Tony Danza?” I knew at that moment that I would have to work hard to impress him. He is a very astute reader. When I wrote the piece “Cock Rock”, which heavily draws on Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, he responded with his own commentary on Swift’s work. His contrasting reading tastes and academic background enmeshed very well with the project and working with him was, shall we say, a great cross-cultural experience.
Throughout my writing process, I wanted to write this open-ended work that would reward creative readers and tease them, in the best possible way, with codings (“in-jokes”, I once called them) or at least the promise of codings in the text that would speak to them and their desires. This is at least one reason why the book is so slippery and multi-layered, and why it can and has been read as Asian-Australian literature, as queer literature, as transgender literature and yet also none of these. Maybe it’s also why some readers of an academic bent have imagined that I have a background in cultural studies or gender studies, amongst other academic disciplines. Developing the project across so many different contexts enabled me to progressively cram more influences into the work and to in turn create more possibilities to tease and speak to readers and to provide the conditions for them to feel, I hope, in some way recognised and energised and even appreciated by what this text might offer them.
My novel-in-progress has longer chapters that don’t lend themselves so easily to readings and publication in journals. I no longer have a PhD process either. Nonetheless, this current project is benefitting from another long gestation and is again being enriched by a fantastic mix of influences, including my continuing and very important work with Ivor Indyk.
MD: Speaking of the writing process, would you like to talk about the novel you’re currently working on?
TC: I’m still trying to find the language for talking about my novel-in-progress (which is an issue that’s entirely in keeping with the kind of project it is). The way that I’ve been describing it lately is that it’s fiction “that is not only informed by the philosophy of religion, but fiction that might, in some small way, do some of the work of philosophy of religion”. Under the umbrella of its plot, it explores some key questions pertaining to the philosophy of religion – questions about the occurrence of suffering, about the nature and existence of God, and the like. Importantly, it has far too many robots and other anime-inspired influences in it to be as dry and boring as what that description might suggest to some. Also, the plan is to close the book with a response to the question “What is the meaning of life?”, which should also keep things interesting. Hence the working title of the book: The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions.
It’s been invigorating to work with a new set of pop cultural influences and with subject matter that departs so sharply from what I’ve written about before. It’s also been hugely intimidating because when I started this project, I’d had no prior academic engagement with the philosophy of religion and had done very little formal study of philosophy in general. When I was writing Look Who’s Morphing, it was a great challenge for me to find a corpus of language that I could use to discuss identity in fresh ways that resisted solidification. Writing about religion has proven to be perhaps even more difficult because the language comes with so much baggage and, as I once said on another occasion, words don’t grip very well when talking about divine figures such as, well, You-Know-Who. In the end, when I wrote Look Who’s Morphing, I think I found not so much a corpus of language but an array of techniques. Now that I think of it, I think this is what’s happening with my second book too. It’s been very exciting for me.
I’ve been progressively sending chapters from the second book to Ivor Indyk and have been greatly encouraged by his comments. I really do think that this next book is quite special.
MD: In the final issue of Sweet Valley Zine, you write:
At present, I am finding that I don’t really need many labels for myself…except for one that might look like this:
*subject to change without notice
Similarly, on your website you write about revising a chapter from your work-in-progress, which examines the attributes of God. You write: “The question of God’s attributes, then, is one that I’ve had to revisit a few times. But a revisable response, one that is not too sure of itself, is what this question requires.” Would you say that a revisable response is what the questions require in all your work? Is everything still morphing?
There’s an open-endedness in my work that rightly suggests that we – both myself as author, as well as my readers – should resist the urge for pat and final answers. As I have said before, fiction and life need mystery, if only to keep our sense of mastery in check. The kinds of questions that I explore in my work don’t lend themselves very easily to conclusiveness anyway. Besides, once read, any literary work is subject to being re-read. And re-readings, like re-writings, inevitably involve some level of revision.
I should add that the metaphor of morphing, when used in a more indiscriminate way, can become banal. And a state of “all-morphing, all-the-time” sounds exhausting too. Maybe it’s more the case that we can and should allow ourselves some moments of stability of knowledge, however tenuous and projected that stability is. This is also something I’ve written of before – that, in amongst those moments of apparent stability, we are trying to discern what’s knowable and what seems to work. Sometimes it’s hard to make our knowledge coalesce and the insights that we glean can be so fleeting, but perhaps that sort of piecemeal approach is not only more doable in life but to some extent inevitable.
MICHELLE DICINOSI is the author of Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance (Black Inc, 2013) and the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners (Clouds of Magellan, 2011). A Hedgebrook alumna and recipient of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, Michelle has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Queensland. She has taught writing at various universities over the past decade, and is the creative non-fiction editor of Mascara Literary Review.
Philip Salom (born 8 August 1950) is a poet and novelist whose books have attracted worldwide acclaim. He has published fourteen books – twelve collections of poetry and two novels – notable for their originality and expansiveness and for surprising differences from title to title.His novels are Playback. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 1991; 2003) and Toccata & Rain: A novel. (Fremantle Arts Centre, 2004) His awards and honours include Commonwealth Poetry Prize for a First Book (The Silent Piano), Western Australian Literary Award for Poetry (The Projectionist),South Australian Biennial Literary Award for Poetry – official Second Prize (The Projectionist),Writers Fellowship, Australia Council,Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Overall Best Book (Sky Poems) and Australia-New Zealand Literary Award, NZ Arts Council.
J.S : Who inspired you to write The Silent Piano(1980)?
P.S : In the late 70s I had become a friend of the older Australian poet William Hart-Smith, who was living in Western Australia at the time and at some chosen distance from the poetry world. We would meet and talk about poetry and mysticism and humour and, well, his life. The latter might sound odd, but Bill was good at anecdotes and had lived a maverick life as a young man and poet. He was my example of the poet as a genuine artist, more concerned about his work than the fame game.
J.S : Who are the poets you read in your childhood?
P.S : None. I lived on a farm and though my parents read a lot they didn’t have any poetry books and read genre fiction, mainly, what Grahame Greene happily called ‘entertainments’. I knew about narrative poetry from teachers reading it aloud but I never read adult poetry until my mid 20s. In that sense I was something of a late starter.
J.S : Why did you choose the title Feeding the Ghost(Penguin, 1993)?
P.S : There’s a small poem in that collection which goes like this:
Looking for a title
then seeing what the hunger is
and what all art is:
feeding the ghost.
I hope that answers the question! It would be a shame to expand upon it.
J.S : What according to you is a ‘good’ poem?
P.S: I have just seen the following question so can pre-empt some of it by saying that I expect good poetry to have an essential inner element I call the imagination, which works on us and changes us. Imagination, for me, also includes the inventive. This, in turn, must work through linguistic freshness and precision and strike me with the poem’s insights, its knowing. All these in a strong relation between feeling and form.
J.S : Can there be a poem without emotion and imagination?
P.S : Not really, though I tend to use the term feeling (as above) because it is more subtle than emotion. There are many times that a poem, a work of art, can move us without it being clear what is happening and what ’emotion’ we are actually experiencing. And then there is compassion as a quality… So for me ‘feeling’ is the surer term, a wider reference… and imagination is the transport, that which moves us as readers into the space of the poem’s power.
J.S : Can writing poetry be taught?
P.S : It can certainly be shown to advantage! An insightful teacher should reveal some of the secrets of how poems work and how a student might write similar things. There is a limit though and for many the penny never drops – they just can’t get there. I had this eperience myself, trying for about 18 months without being satisfied with the results, fairly sure they weren’t poems at all, more little poetry-looking artifacts. Then I simply broke through, wrote several and amazed myself. The penny had dropped. Once through, it’s a given. Thereafter the poems were poems, widely different in manner and success … but poems, nevertheless. You may not be able to teach that break-through.
J.S : Did you ever attend a course on creative writing?
P.S : Yes. That is where I met Bill Hart-Smith. He was doing some casual tutoring at the University. I also met other poets in Perth and saw what they were up to, listened to them, got to know their work. And I read a great deal of poetry and thought about it, I did that crucial thinking about thinking, with poetry as the form.
J.S : Performance poetry is gaining momentum in many parts of the world. How do you view this very special trend in poetry?
P.S : It is a phenomenon, just as comedy and TV talent shows are. And social media as self-performance is. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. Performance of poetry as entertainment and stand-up comedy and noisy show-off may attract some people to more demanding poetries, but is more likely to encourage audiences to try it themselves as the model of poetry, naively then, and even put down what they then see as literary or ‘academic’ poetry. The shallowness is the problem.
J.S : Who are the important reviewers of your books and poems in the early part of your career as a poet?
P.S : I received most support from Tom Shapcott, as poet and reviewer but also through his role as reader for my first publisher, Fremantle Press. He gave me advice on my writing and made significant editorial suggestions, and he also dropped my name in more active poetry circles. This was important because I was, by living in Perth, in Western Australia, not really part of the poetry scene, which is centred on Sydney and Melbourne.
J.S : Do you have any dilemma in expressing beauty and truth?
P.S : I do my best, and have a complex view of what beauty might be, or beauty of perception, of poetry itself as a mode, as an art form. Each form creates its own kind of beauty and knows beauty differently. Truth is as subtle as beauty, more varied perhaps, more rhyzomic. It takes many forms and many of these are not obvious, whereas beauty often creates consensus, and shallow beauty to me is not much in the way of truth. As in sentimentality, say, in poetry.
J.S : For P.B. Shelley, ‘poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society…’…Do you that think this quote still holds truth in this age of cyber mania?
P.S : Not really, if it ever did. I consider Shelley’s was a bold claim, more rhetorical than true.
J.S : You have performed as a guest poet and lecturer in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Yugoslavia, Singapore and New Zealand. Could you share your experiences?
P.S : The performance poets conveniently forget that the rest of us often like reading/performing and I have been called a moving reader. I do like it. I enjoy placing the poem in and on the voice and giving it resonance, tone, mood, an aliveness of meaning. Each city and occasion and venue calls up some common elements and some different ones: which poems to read, will any humour carry, how long a poem, what tone to use? It can be depressing giving it your best and knowing it didn’t work. In another country this is especially galling because you may never return! My strangest and in retrospect most exciting reading moment only lasted one poem. I read at night in Skopjie, in a public square, along with about 30 international poets, to a crowd of about 2000 people. My poem had a dramatic build-up to a Polish song which concluded the poem, and with the benefit of my earlier interest in operatic styles of singing, I sang this full voice, in a high baritone. It was thrilling to risk doing this – the vodka probably helped – but the crowd gave me a huge ovation. They loved it. So did I.
J.S : Can the age of Facebook produce a poet like John Keats?
P.S : Sure. If there’s enough time. We forget how astoundingly prolific Keats was and the time spent on writing and reading may seem impossible to find for keen social media people. The new ‘Keats’ may simply be found among those who don’t indulge. But who knows?
J.S : Why do you write poems?
P.S : Once I realised I could write genuine poems, as against the imposters I mentioned earlier, I felt a bit special – it was always a thrill to know how and to experience (among the pains) the deep pleasures and honour even (sound soppy, but still…) of bringing off a strong poem. But I write for more than that, for the knowings I receive as I write, for the inventions and achievements, which I believe all good poetry must possess. It’s hard not to. And because I haven’t finished yet.
J.S : What are your seminal volumes?
P.S : This is a tough call. I have two essential areas of style. My central works, like Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and my forthcoming book Alterworld, are each a single book as an imagined world, and together they make up a cosmology. A trilogy, far from Dante, but as Heaven, Limbo and Hope. These are sweeping but also ironic claims!
The other style of poem I write is more personal, to do with family, people, more directly about common experiences and wonderings and feelings and what I call hauntings.
J.S :What are your seminal issues in poetry?
P.S : To see and understand the world as much as possible and do so within the mode and frames of poetry and poems. This is ontological. The nature of being, existence, the old thing. To relate the hauntings, apprehensions, the energy of being, of consciousness. Which has to acknowledge the unconscious, the intuitive, the imagined, of course.
J.S : Are you familiar with contemporary Indian poets in English?
P.S : Not many, I must say. But then, nor am I familiar with contemporary poets from Canada or Germany. I have met Jayanta, of course, some years ago, also Keki Daruwalla and Nissam Ezekiel and I have read poets piece-meal, sometimes not recalling names. I met a group of Indian writers and poets just before I left Perth to live in Melbourne, in 1997, but generally there is not much traffic in either live or printed form. I also read with interest the poets (Keki included) in the Southerly special issue
J.S : In a poem for Jayanta Mahapatra’s 80th birthday(published in Southerly, Vol 70,Nov., 2010) you wrote “Your poems have called up Wordsworth in the readers(.)”Could you please share your views on his poems?
P.S : Some poetry hits you immediately with its authority and its power of perception and tone. Jayanta’s is like that. There is a worldliness that lives in the local, a strength that acknowledges weakness, a seriousness that is full of compassion. He is true. And he is fully himsef, not some echo of Wordsworth, which is part of what my poem considers, and yet he has the power and sadness perhaps of Wordsworth. I think my phrase was ‘sad and secular’. His lyric is able to be informed by the personal for its knowing but also speak out to readers as something more wide-reaching and impersonal, and by that I mean, his lyric poetry is never turned inward for any gratification or self-mythologising. This last is characteristic of too many poets, sometimes quite brilliant poets, but it’s very off-putting for me. Jayanta is often solemn but he is never boring as old Wordsworth could be! He has a strong social conscience too.
J.S : During 2009-10 you worked in collaboration with Maggie Hegarty, a Melbourne photographer, to create a lucid and freshly imagined art book of poems and images. How is this book received?
P.S : We created the ‘book’ before we realised we couldn’t afford to produce it! Too idealistic. I think the images and poems are strong. However – the costs for such an ‘art book’ were too high unless we could guarantee some sales for what becomes itself a very expensive item. Collectors and archivists and libraries used to purchase such books and display them. They no longer have the budgets to allow thus activity. Sadly.
J.S :What is the future of poetry in the world?
P.S : Same as always – there will be people who must write it, and people who must read it. Some poets will attract big readerships, and listeners, and careers, the others will just get down to the endless business of writing it. Some will excel. It is a deep activity and such activities, unlike library budgets! always survive.
J.S :Where do you live now? Do you have any other serious engagement other than writing poetry and novel?
P.S :I live in North Melbourne with my wife and we keep three cats. Our two children are adults and have lives extremely unlike ours and do nothing that is in any way close to poetry! I resigned from my lecturing work at the University of Melbourne to write full time. My wife is now the bread-earner and luckily we both enjoy this arrangement.
J.S :Did you write social/personal satires? Could you please mention…..
P.S :In 2012 I published a book called Keepers which is a kind of hybrid verse novel, based around an academic art institution. My approach is generally satirical, a lot of mockery and exposure of the foibles and indulgences of staff and wannabe students, as well as some more serious issues being explored, questioned… After that I created another two books written through heteronym: one lyric and rather melancholic poet who is also sardonic and who grew from the satirical voice of Keepers, so this book The Keeper of Fish is his collection (as a closet poet) of poems. Then I wrote another poet with a style and personality utterly unlike my own. His name is M A Carter and Carter truly is a satirist, an outrageous misanthrope and eccentric who writes much funnier poems than mine but whose words are much more biting and critical in manner and attack. He’s a worry! His book is called Keeping Carter. I am all the same very proud of him. My next novel Waiting is about people who have very little in life and if this makes them figures of satire they are also mouthpieces for a larger critique of society, which means they get all the best lines.
My poem is over the page, and an echo of India…
A Night-long Performance of Peter Brook’s Mahabarata
Ceaseless going over and going over swayed
her voice back into millenia, the millenia in her throat
swayed inside us, its sad and ceaseless zaftig of tone
rose and fell under the violins chugging, in unison.
Yes, chugging, not romantic. The Pandava brothers.
Lament here, the drum-spats, the harmonium’s square
book of the Vedas opening and closing.
Earth. Death. When you wake from it millenia
have come and left. Timelessness is greater time.
At dawn in the local quarry we usually ignored
the cliffs were cut open by Vedic wars:
gelignite has nothing on this. Opened I was/we were.
Peter Brook was a thousand years old in this new
Sanskrit English International Cast
His Arjuna seized us, he was handsome and epic
and everyone fought beside him, side against side,
but no victory a victory: we were dying to know
of epic knowing and to mourn for what is real
in what is not. Nine hours and centuries
is a lot of dying and of the not really real.
But at six am the sun stood up amongst us
and threw the rug from its shoulders.
Mahabarata. Just the sound of it is glorious.
We had done right and been wrong, been honourable
and weak, loyal and venal, heard the tragedy of the wise
and the foolish, and felt big quarry tears, the terrible,
compassionate arrows of a real Mahabarata
plunge through us.
So filled and fooled, now we were filing home
into the next world.